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Training Camp 2021: Previewing the Broncos safeties

Jul 27, 2021, 6:31 AM | Updated: 3:32 pm
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 13: Kareem Jackson (22) and Justin Simmons (31) lead the defense against t...
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos are trying to get back to relevancy – and the postseason – in 2021. They turned in a down 2020 season, going 5-11 under Vic Fangio, but the staff returns intact to give it one more try. Fangio is entering his third year as the Broncos head coach, and it’s win (a lot of games) or go home. The Broncos changed things up in a big way this offseason by moving on from former general manager John Elway and hiring new GM George Paton.

This is the first year under the guidance of Paton, and the team has done a good job of adding quality players via free agency and the NFL Draft. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at DenverFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.

This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the safety position:

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Starters: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson

I’m glad the Broncos kept their starting duo of Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson together for the 2021 season – but they did it in an interesting way.

The Broncos (finally) did right by Simmons. After placing the franchise tag on him for the second year in a row, they moved to give him a new long-term contract. Earlier this year, the Broncos made Simmons the highest-paid safety in the NFL with a four-year, $61 million contract. He is so deserving of that contract based on his play on the field and the work in the community Simmons does off the field. He’s the perfect Bronco, and he’s the type of player you want every player to turn out like.

The third-round pick (2016) coming out of Boston College was always known as a smart player. Over the last few years, Simmons has rounded out his game to be one of the best in the league. The 27-year-old safety has played 3,067 consecutive defensive snaps since 2018, getting a Pro Bowl nod in 2020 partly due to his five interceptions. He’s a playmaker, but perhaps Simmons best asset is that he’s consistent.

Simmons knows how to diagnose plays as they break down in front of him. This allows him to get to the play or keep up with receivers who are trying to make big plays down the field. Simmons has a nose for the ball and can flip the field if he gets his hand on an interception. He helps assemble the defense on the back end and does extensive film work, which helps him understand what a team wants to do against the defense based on tendencies from down-and-distance.

The Broncos kept Jackson around for one more year, which I like, but they did it by first letting him go. Earlier this year, the Broncos declined Jackson’s option for the 2021 season, which made him a free agent. Their plan was to bring him back for a cheaper deal, but Jackson was exposed to the rest of the league before deciding to return to the Broncos. He was set to count $12.8 million against the cap, but the Broncos instead declined his option then about a week later signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal.

Jackson has been an excellent addition for the Broncos, and over the last two seasons, he’s been one of the best safeties in the NFL. Like Simmons, Jackson is bright, and diagnoses plays quickly. Unlike Simmons, Jackson is a headhunter who intimidates opposing players. He’s not a dirty player, but he’s one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL and Jackson can strike fear into the hearts of opponents.

I believe that Jackson can keep playing at a high level this year, and likely one more year after that. He’s only got one year left in Denver, and this seems like a make-or-break season for Vic Fangio and his staff. Let’s hope the improved cornerback position and high-level safety play help lead to double-digit wins for the Broncos.

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Reserves: Trey Marshall, Jamar Johnson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke

Trey Marshall came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Florida State and has mostly played on special teams during his Broncos career. At the end of the 2019 season, Marshall did get to play on defense with Jackson out. In those two games, Marshall played 123 snaps and compiled 11 tackles, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. He showed that when called up he can be reliable for the Broncos defense. In 2020, Marshall played a bit more (166 snaps) and came away with just five tackles. He returns once again as valuable depth but he’s not a lock for the 53-man roster based on the safeties they drafted.

Jamar Johnson is the definition of ballhawk. It’s one of the main reasons why the Broncos added him in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. I had a late third-round grade on Johnson, so getting him at that point on day three of the draft could be a big value for the Broncos.

During his college career at the University of Indiana, Johnson displayed a knack for either knocking the pass away or picking it off. In nine games starting over three years, Johnson collected seven interceptions. In addition to picking off the ball, Johnson also registered 14 passes defensed.

In addition to his nose for the ball, Johnson also was known as a versatile player who could line up at safety or at nickel cornerback. He’s a rangy player who can find his way to the ball even on plays that go away from him. When asked to be a blitzer or a run-defender, Johnson responds with natural violence. I’d like to see him get more physical as a tackler in coverage, but driving forward to meet a running back or sack a quarterback is something he seems to relish.

Caden Sterns is more than just a special teams player. Like Johnson, Sterns was a fifth-round draft pick of the Broncos in the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s about the spot I expected him to go in the draft, but he could prove to be a value pick if he develops his defensive skills while still being a solid special teams player.

Sterns is a coordinated athlete who can click-and-close quickly. He understands angles and does a good job of using his body to bring down ball-carriers or receivers. Sterns was a popular player with his college teammates and voted a captain in 2020. Durability, knee injuries and a turf toe problem have held Sterns back in terms of development. He needs to stay healthy and sharpen his skill as a defender in order to play up to his potential in the pros.

P.J. Locke originally came into the league as an undrafted free agent signed by the Steelers coming out of Texas. Locke failed to make the 53-man roster in Pittsburgh and was out of the league for a few months before the Broncos signed him to the practice squad in December of 2019. He’s box safety with a willingness to get his hands dirty playing against the run. His size and speed limit what he can do in coverage, although Locke does a good job of following the route combinations in front of him.

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Summary

The safety position has historically been a standout position for the Broncos, and this year is no exception. Simmons and Jackson are arguably the best starting safety duo in the entire league. Their play will greatly help the Broncos defense as the unit should finally be what it was expected to be when Fangio was hired a couple of years ago.

The cornerback improvements around them will unleash the playmaking ability of both Simmons and Jackson. Both can get their hands on the ball, and Jackson can now be even more free to punish opponents with his hammering ability as a tackler. In short, we’ll see the best from both in 2021 because they won’t have to cover for subpar corners.

I like the depth they have at the position, something they haven’t had in some time. The reserves won’t see much time if Simmons and Jackson stay healthy, but I’m excited to see the development of the young safeties – especially Johnson who could one day be a solid player.

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