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GIF Horse - Justin Simmons

How good is the 3rd year safety, really?

parks and simmons
In 2016 Elway drafted two safeties. One of them looks like a huge hit.

They say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but at least this once I can understand if a few are miffed about the delay this week. I want to take a second to apologize. Unfortunately a combination of factors delayed me this time around.

Without going too deep, last week I finally moved to my new house, started the first full week of the new job and got a few extra assignments for my gig with Sports Illustrated. Lame, I know but it delayed some of the tape study I wanted to put in before I felt comfortable writing at length. Alas, here we are.

A quick road down philosophy lane.

Personally, I find the safety position incredibly underrated. It’s stupid hard to find a truly elite one because the position demands so much out of a player. In the perfect world you’re starting safeties are both erasers and Swiss army knives: able to shutdown anything that goes deep while capably playing man coverage on slots receivers, running backs and tight-ends. Oh and they can also come up and stop runs that make it to the second level.

That’s quite the laundry list, which is one big reason why there is often such a difference between a teams strong safety and free safety. One is expected to act as the third starting corner while the other is a hammer. Ideally, they will also be able to defend against the tertiary receivers that are so often a key part of the passing game today. I would say the peak play of the Seattle Seahawks’ duo Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the gold standard.

Which brings us to Justin Simmons.

“I think he’s going to be a Pro Bowler, man,” Darian Stewart said. “He has all the natural attributes to do that, man, and he’s a smart football player. He’s going into Year 3, he has me next to him helping him grow, he has great players around him, and the only way you can get there is having other players around you doing their job.”

The attributes

Coming out of the 2016 draft, Simmons was among the very best defensive backs when it came to his height, arm length, vertical jump, 3-Cone as well as his 20 yard and 60 yard shuttle times. Back when I obsessively played Madden, I had a certain barometer for DBs and WRs that they had to come close to. I called them the 90-90-90 guys. Simmons would make the cut. He’s an elite athlete at a position that demands it.

The problem

According to Football Outsiders DVOA stat that measures efficiency on a snap by snap basis, the Broncos’ defense declined last year. While they remained 2nd in the entire league in run defense and against number 1 wide receivers, tertiary receivers (WR3+, TE and RBs) just shredded them. They were league average against the deep pass, which is a big step back for a defense pegged “The No-Fly Zone.”

What happened and how culpable was Simmons’ play?

The Bad Tape

We start with week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Simmons (31) is at the top of the screen. You’ll notice that he takes a false step, which is just enough for Keenan Allen to get past him. Without that step Simmons keeps up with Allen to provide a bracket, which would have prevented the throw by Rivers. As it is, Roby gets called for DPI on the play, but it never should have gotten this far.

First game jitters?

The play is a microcosm, one play to best illustrate something that pops up throughout Simmons’ tape here and there. The former 3rd rounder shows time and again his athleticism and capability to cover in the deep part of the field. Unfortunately, he also has plays where he’s just a second slow in diagnosing the action in front of him, or he takes a wrong step. That’s all it takes in the NFL for an opposing game to take advantage.

Here’s one other example from week 6 against Eli Manning and the Giants. New York comes out in a tight formation.

This is a formation well known for the Mesh concept.

Now, obviously I don’t sit in the Broncos meetings so I can’t say for sure what Simmons and the D was told leading up to this one, but I can tell you on my first play through I saw this formation and thought “mesh.” Blame my Madden days, I guess.
Because of how tight the receivers are, it’s easy for them to run towards each other and quickly create a pick against man coverage. The NFL has used a lot of these natural pick plays in recent seasons and with the Giants going into their week 2 match-up against the Broncos minus Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr.? It may be the easiest way to get passing yards against a secondary renowned for their man-coverage.

From his vantage point, it should be clear where Eli wants to go with the ball here.

At the above point in the play, Simmons knows it’s unlikely Talib will need help as he has the sideline aiding his coverage. The action is unfolding in the middle of the field.

It isn’t until the ball has left Eli’s hand that Simmons starts to move towards the action.

Now, I don’t want to be too critical of this component of Simmons’ game. He was a first year starter in 2017 and the Broncos pass rush was clearly weaker than expected with Ray down. He should improve in this facet of his game with more experience and time to study tape this offseason, but it bears monitoring .

Which brings us to the next big question facing the Broncos safety: his tackling and run defense. It’s not always pretty.

Simmons’ essentially blocks himself here.

Fortunately, plays like these are not all that common in Simmons’ game. In fact, Pro Football Focus’ graders gave Simmons an 86.1 grade last year, tied for 10th best of all of the Safeties in the league. This is an area I expect Simmons to improve even more at, as plays like the above come down to reading a step quicker. That should (and note: SHOULD) come with more experience. Players like Adrian Amos and Harrison Smith both improved at play recognition significantly between their second and third seasons.

The Good Tape

If it seems as if I’m being really hard on Simmons, you’d be right. It’s hard to watch the 2017 and miss his potential. Darian Stewart is right, he has all the attribute you look for. He had collegiate experience at cornerback and it shows. He’s comfortable in space and lined up across from receivers.

This is the kind of anticipatory read you’re looking for.

What’s more, he has a bit of John Lynch in his game. That’s saying something considering his 200 lb frame. One thing I really love about the following play is how the Broncos D dictates where the ball will go, knowing that Simmons makes it near impossible for the Giants to successfully complete the pass.

This is “Defense as offense”

What’s more, for a player dinged for his “thin, lanky frame” Simmons is a willing tackler.

Having a safety that can adequately contain opens up a ton of options for the defensive line.

As bad as that previous run play against the Raiders was, I found far more of these. The Broncos routinely rotate one of the safeties up into an 8 man box, I thought Simmons was better than Stewart in these situations.

In Summary

I do think Simmons will always be a little tighter in the hips than the smaller Harris or Roby. I doubt the Broncos safety will ever be quite the hammer at 200 lbs that Chancellor (225lbs) is for the Seahawks.

But I do think he’ll continue to grow. He was easily the best safety in the secondary last year and should only continue to improve. Studying up on him, he has the kind of work ethic and leadership qualities you pray for when your drafting players. If he can make the small improvements a player should as they gain experience in a pro system, the sky’s the limit.

Still Grazin’? A potpourri

1. Su’a Cravens coming to the Broncos was not an indictment of Simmons in any way. The former 2nd round pick by the Washington Redskins is safety-linebacker type. His ceiling is a player similar to T.J Ward or Eric Berry. He’s likely to steal Will Parks playing time and eventually give Elway the flexibility to move on from Darian Stewart, who’s deal has a potential out in 2019.

2. While we’re talking about Will Parks. Egads.

It’s not often you see Harris so ticked...

3. I saw in the comments last week that there was some question why I used Shane Ray’s 2017 tape when he was clearly a better player in 2016. The truth of the matter is, I had a ton of ‘16 reel ready to go, but found the ‘17 stuff similar, but better for illustrating the same questions that popped up on his earlier tape. He was definitely a better pass rusher in the previous year but still had issues against the run. It was just exasperated by his injury and subsequent issues.

4. If you haven’t checked out this interview Andrew Mason did with Justin Simmons: go now. It’s awesome.

5. Lastly- my god did Shelby Harris pop off the tape while I was watching Simmons’ Miami game. I’m excited to dig into him more and hope you’re along for the ride. Thanks for all the positive feedback and keep pushing me to improve whether it be via comments or Twitter!