You never really know what you’ll get from a position in the NFL. After all, injuries derail the best plans.
But there’s no positional group on the team that has more clarity than the Broncos’ safety corps, with two proven starters, three recent draft picks and another young safety who looks set for a jump. level.
Incumbents: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson
You know what you’re getting with Simmons — and, according to a survey of NFL staff coaches and players compiled by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, what you’re getting is the best safety in football.
As one AFC defensive coach told Fowler, “If you judge the safety game by who’s the most complete and ticks the most boxes, that’s the guy for me. .”
Simmons’ range and ability to track and adapt to passes is probably the best in the league. And while Simmons doesn’t have Jackson’s punch, he’s an asset against the run due to his ability to diagnose games as they develop.
It didn’t take long for new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to find out what he had in Simmons.
“He’s a smart player, and we’ll start with that,” Evero said during the minicamp. “Smart players are my favorite type of player. He’s smart, athletic, he’s got experience now and he’s a leader. He can say things with confidence and people will believe him because they know leads them in the right direction.
It helps to have a security partner as experienced as Jackson. After some communication problems at the start of the season last year, the two got back on track.
“Smart guys,” Evero said. “You put more on their shoulders because you know they can handle it, not just in terms of doing it themselves, but communicating it to everyone.”
While Simmons’ place and role are clear, the situation is slightly murkier for Jackson.
First of all, it is worth noting the evolution of his contractual situation. In March 2021, the Broncos declined to take his option, making him a free agent. They then re-signed him to a one-year deal, resulting in a net savings of $5 million. Denver let him test the market again this spring, and he walked back on a one-year, $2 million deal. $1.3 million guaranteed.
Denver’s early decisions show a willingness to live without Jackson. You don’t let a player test the market unless you’ve decided it’s possible to continue with someone else in the lineup.
But in each of the past two offseasons, Jackson has immediately returned to the first team.
The truth is, the Broncos still need Jackson. They need his guided missile in the box. They need his lived, accomplished experience. And in particular, they need his vocal and veteran leadership. His conversations with opposing offensive players — and even coach Nathaniel Hackett — spiced up the OTAs.
But they also need him to go back in time a bit. According to data compiled by Pro Football Focus, Jackson missed 17.1% of his tackle opportunities last year, the highest rate of his career. He also allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 111.8 rating when targeting him, the highest rating at his expense since 2017.
It’s possible that the dynamic environment fostered by Broncos coaches will make Jackson’s 13th season a year of rebirth. Certainly, he is connected with his new bosses.
“I kinda like me Kareem,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “I like his intensity and his competitiveness. … He plays the game the way it should, and I like that about him. I love to tweet with him.
“It just brings that energy and excitement to training because it’s real football.”
Intangibles like this should make Jackson valuable for at least another year.
Subs: Caden Sterns, PJ Locke, Jamar Johnson, JR Reed, Delarrin Turner-Yell
Sterns’ rookie performance was a revelation. Few defensive backs in the league have been more effective than the fifth-round pick.
Last year, Sterns was one of seven defensive backs with at least 2 interceptions, 2 sacks and 5 defensive assists. The other six all played at least 500 snaps – a group that included names such as Jordan Poyer of Buffalo, Antoine Winfield Jr. of Tampa Bay, Budda Baker of Arizona and Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Sterns got there in just 311 shots. Most of his work came as a sixth defensive back, working as a hybrid safety/lunge cornerback, depending on the formation presented by the opposing offense. A similar role could be in maps for Sterns – and with the expected focus on subpacks, that could mean he plays 25-30 snaps per game.
Locke is proof that a prospect’s patience can pay off. When asked to play, he delivered a steady and exhilarating job. And when he replaced Jackson during first-team OTAs, he was a playmaker, ending an OTA with an end zone, preventing the deflection of a Russell Wilson attempt at Courtland Sutton.
“We were joking about how I was looking at the quarterback and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m wide open,’ and then all of a sudden I see a white flash appear in my eye and it’s PJ playing. “Sutton said.
Locke is a smart player; he quickly incorporates teaching into his game. The result is a player who plays faster than his timed speed and looks capable – at a minimum – of becoming a good No. 3 safety.
“PJ is awesome,” Simmons said after Locke worked alongside him during OTAs.
“Obviously there’s no replacing a Kareem or replacing other players,” Simmons added a moment later, “but it was smooth communication with him. You can see his instinct takes over when he plays, he’s always been a special player and I’m happy.
“Publicly — because a lot of people here (in the Broncos organization) know — he’s going to be a special player for a while.”
Johnson is the joker of the group. His nose for football got him on draft radars at Indiana, and led the Broncos to select him in the fifth round last year. But he missed much of training camp last year after being placed on the COVID-19 list. He lost ground in the competition for playing time and never caught up. By the end of the season, he had just three regular season games under his belt – and no defensive snaps.
The numbers game could work against Johnson. Locke and Sterns appear to be in good shape heading into camp. And as a fifth-round rookie, it would be a surprise if Turner-Yell doesn’t stick.
Turner-Yell is a good scheme suited to Evero’s defense, incorporating a host of Vic Fangio concepts. His aggressive instincts should provide the opportunity for game-changing takeaways. The key for the Oklahoma rookie is to improve the angles he takes on coverage.
And the JR Reed pickup could play a big part in special teams if it stays on the roster. Reed has played 117 snaps for the Los Angeles Rams over the past two years. All came on special teams under the watch of current Broncos special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes, who was assistant special teams coach under former Broncos assistant Joe DeCamillis.
And Evero knows Reed well, having been a safety coach at Los Angeles until 2020 before becoming their secondary coach and pass defense coordinator last year. That familiarity — along with Reed’s special teams ability — gives him a chance to stick around.
The whole plot is behind Simmons. Can Locke and/or Sterns do enough to push Jackson and possibly work their way into the starting lineup? What can Johnson do to avoid getting lost in the shuffle? And can Turner-Yell rise through the ranks?
It’s a position the Broncos could make a trade from before the roster deadline. There isn’t enough room for the seven on the 53-man roster. But everyone in the room is good enough to land on someone’s team and get a jersey on game days.