ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — At no other position do the Denver Broncos have a richer history than at safety.
There are five safeties among the 34 members of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, tied for the most with quarterbacks.
And besides the five inducted — Goose Gonsoulin, Billy Thompson, Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater, John Lynch — there are more safeties worthy of strong consideration (Steve Foley, Tyrone “Chicken” Braxton) than besides the five honored quarterbacks — Charley Johnson, Tripucka, Craig Morton, John Elway, Peyton Manning.
Atwater and Lynch are Pro Football Hall of Famers while Smith and Thompson need to be re-examined by the seniors committee.
Current safety Justin Simmons has been playing to the franchise’s high standards.
Simmons, 29, tied for the NFL-lead last year with six interceptions even though he missed five games with injury. Otherwise durable in his career, Simmons has three consecutive seasons of at least 5 interceptions and seven seasons of at least 2 picks.
Simmons ranks 8th in team annals with 27 career interceptions. Of the seven pick-artists ahead of him, all but Bailey played safety at least part-time in their careers. Unfortunately for Simmons, his Broncos have yet to appear in a postseason game in his seven seasons.
Drafted in the third round out of Boston College in 2016, the rookie Simmons’ leaping block of an extra point and subsequent 2-point return the other way by safety teammate Will Parks helped the Broncos beat Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints and finish with a 9-7 record.
But there’s been overall team misery in the six years since then despite Simmons’ impressive play.
The question mark at the Broncos’ safety is at the spot opposite Simmons. Kareem Jackson has been the starter for the previous four years and he just re-signed for a fifth. But the Broncos have talked to him about playing the dime backer role and moving Caden Sterns up to starter -- providing Sterns recovers sufficiently from last season’s hip surgery.
Here’s a look at the Broncos’ safety position entering the 2023 season:
Justin Simmons and Caden Sterns/Kareem Jackson
Simmons has been selected second-team All Pro three times in the past four years. He was the NFL’s only defensive player who played every snap (3,211) from 2018-2020. The streak reached 3,378 before coach Vic Fangio pulled Simmons and other starters late in a 26-0 win against the Jets in game 3 of the 2021 season. Simmons started 66 consecutive games over four seasons from 2018-21 before a quad injury in the 2022 opener at Seattle sidelined him for four games.
The last time we saw Sterns, he had two interceptions off Matt Ryan in a 12-9 overtime loss against Indianapolis in week 5. Sterns aggravated a hip injury in that game that required season-ending surgery. He is not expected to participate in OTAs that begin next Tuesday but there is hope he will be fully cleared either by the start of training camp or shortly after.
“We feel Caden has starter traits,’’ general manager George Paton told 9NEWS on April 29. “When he’s had to start he’s played like a starter. We feel really good about Caden. We think Caden will be back for the season, there’s no doubt there.’’
Then again don’t be surprised if by the time Sterns returns, Jackson will have already won over the new Sean Payton-Vance Joseph coaching leaders to become the Broncos’ starter for a fifth consecutive season. Jackson is 35 but he also led all Broncos with 1,139 snaps last year, missing just 5. After a prolonged wait through free agency, Jackson is back on a one-year, $2.67 million contract.
Kareem Jackson/Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, JL Skinner, Delarrin Turner-Yell
If Sterns starts, Jackson will play the dime backer role. If Jackson starts, Sterns will fill the No. 3 safety/big nickel role. Locke led Broncos special teamers with 12 tackles last season and played sparingly as a reserve safety. Turner-Yell played well as a safety in the preseason, but only played special teams in 14 regular-season games.
Skinner is a tall safety at an even 6-foot-4 – two inches taller than Simmons, who is considered a tall safety at 6-2 – who was drafted in the sixth round out of Boise State. Skinner’s game is much more similar to Simmons’ than Jackson’s in that he’s rangy, centerfielder type.
Gone but not forgotten
All Broncos’ safeties who finished the 2022 season return.
Anthony Harris was picked up in the second week of last season for depth. He was elevated from the practice squad to play special teams for three games before he was released in December. Harris then signed on to the Eagles’ practice squad and was elevated for their two NFC playoff games.
On the way up
Skinner And Turner-Yell
The current buzz is on Skinner but he was a sixth-round pick while last year Turner-Yell was selected in the fifth round.
Skinner will first have to get healthy. He tore a pectoral muscle while training for the NFL Combine and will miss the offseason practices but there is hope he will be mended by training camp. But Skinner has impressive athletic skills who should give the Broncos good special teams production at some point this year while developing behind Simmons. It’s not unusual for sixth-round draft picks to begin their careers on the practice squad so Skinner will need a good camp and preseason to make the 53.
Turner-Yell was especially impressive as the Denver D was otherwise laying down against the Bills in a preseason rout last year, then contributed on special teams, finishing third on the team with 8 tackles and leading with two fumble recoveries.
Key to 2023
A combination of Simmons returning to his every-game ways, Jackson having one more good season in his 14th NFL season – all other defensive backs from his 2010 draft class are finished playing – and Sterns returning to prior form.
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