DENVER — Last season the Denver Broncos defense was decimated with injuries to key players, but fortunately enough for them, Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson remained healthy and were a dynamic duo on the back-end of the secondary. In 2021, the Broncos depth at safety isn’t as nearly of a concern after free agency and the NFL Draft.
One of George Paton’s first acts of business as the team’s new General Manager was to secure Simmons as a long-term cornerstone piece of the franchise. He did just that, signing Simmons to a four-year $61M deal, making him the highest paid safety in the National Football League.
Deservedly so, Simmons is now locked in long-term and he can now focus on continuing to elevate the Broncos defense as the unit's top captain. In 2020, Simmons finished as the team’s third leading tackler with 96 total tackles, but what impressed even more was that he led the team in total solo tackles at 77. He secured a career-high in interceptions with 5 and had 9 passes defensed.
As for his counterpart in Jackson, there was concern at one point this offseason that he would not be returning to the Broncos in 2021 after Paton and the team declined his club option. Paton would evaluate the free agency market which didn’t formulate much for veteran safeties. After former Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris signed a one-year $5M deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, the market was set.
Jackson decided that he would return to Denver in 2021 and would sign a similar deal. Reflecting on Jackson’s 2020 season, he served as a tone-setter who could change the momentum of a game with a big time hit on opposing players. Fangio relied a lot on both Simmons and Jackson last season because of how well they did their job, and now there is a growing sense of optimism among league circles that the Broncos could have one of the best safety duos in the NFL.
In an often physical game, both Simmons and Jackson demonstrated durability as Simmons logged 1088 total snaps and never came off the field. Jackson would log 1083 snaps, just five fewer than Simmons as their play styles benefitted one another. Now, the Broncos can focus on having their dynamic duo back this upcoming season while also zeroing in on developing the younger players at that position as well.
Behind both Simmons and Jackson are several players who have some development traits that could fit well within Fangio’s defense, but some players may not be ready right away, and it appears the Broncos are okay with that.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Broncos drafted two safeties in the fifth round in Caden Sterns (Texas) and Jamar Johnson (Indiana) in Paton’s first draft, firmly in control of the team.
It’s hard to pinpoint just yet what the Broncos plans are for Sterns and Johnson in 2021, but the early expectation is that both players will contribute on special teams before they work themselves into a role on defense. Both players will benefit from learning Fangio’s defense and learning how to be professional athletes with Simmons and Jackson leading the room.
One thing I’ve noticed with the Broncos under Fangio is that he will reward players for their effort and production on special teams. In 2019, both Dre’Mont Jones and Malik Reed saw significant time on the special teams side of the ball where they made various impact plays. Fangio would soon after reward those players with rotational looks in various personnel packages. Both Sterns and Johnson could see a similar fast track in 2021, but the Broncos best hope is that they don’t have to put a lot on their plate as rookies.
The Broncos also have two other players on the roster who could play an immediate role on both special teams and within the defensive rotation. P.J. Locke and Trey Marshall both return to Broncos Camp with another year of experience in Fangio’s defense. Locke is entering his second year with the Broncos after spending 2020 on the roster where he contributed primarily in a role on special teams. He registered three total tackles last season, but was a standout on film as a high-energy player.
Locke has a chance to creep into the defensive rotation when the Broncos transition into more dime or nickel looks, but he’ll have to put on a strong performance during camp in two weeks time and the preseason to help elevate his chances.
Marshall is entering his third year as a member of the Broncos and is looking to get more of an opportunity to play this season. In 2020, Marshall also contributed in a role on special teams and saw some 15 snaps on the defensive side of the ball. In 2019, Marshall stepped in for the team’s final two regular season games and started in place of Jackson who was serving a two game suspension. On film, Marshall wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty by being aggressive against both the run and the pass.
However, last season didn’t go the way Marshall had planned as he dealt with a shin injury that impacted him for four weeks. As training camp approaches, Marshall is focused on making the most of every rep he receives as he aims to make the roster for the third consecutive season.
I had asked Coach Fangio following one of June’s mandatory minicamp practices about how he views the depth behind Simmons and Jackson with Locke and Marshall returning this season with knowledge of the defense. “Well we hope that they can play any of those safeties that become backup safeties, and you’re not limited to only having two. If it’s more–you can have three. They’ll carve a good role in the special teams, just like Trey and P.J. did last year, and anybody else that’s in that role has to be able to do. With the way that NFL offenses are playing these days, you’re going to have five and six DBs out there a good bit. So if they can carve a niche to be one of the up-front players, that helps them. But we’re happy with our safety depth.”
Training Camp is steadily approaching in just two weeks time where the Broncos will continue to evaluate their roster during practice and throughout the preseason to determine who the best 53 will be come September when the team opens their season against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium at 2:25 pm MT.
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