Drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft, Justin Simmons had an impressive rookie season under then-defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Simmons never really materialized into the superior safety we all hoped when Joe Woods took over the defense under new head coach Vance Joseph in 2017.
By the end of the Vance Joseph era, it had leaked out that the coaching staff had put ‘a little too much on’ Simmons last season. He was used at multiple positions and suffered in his development for it.
But under new head coach Vic Fangio, things look to be getting back on track, and the potential for Simmons to reach his expected potential has greatly increased.
Justin Simmons profile
Weight: 202 pounds
Experience: 4th season
There has not been a single Bronco I’ve studied this spring who has changed my mind as dramatically as Justin Simmons. Heading into my film dive last week, I wasn’t sure if he should be a starter in 2019. As I studied Chris Harris, Von Miller, and other players, I couldn’t help but notice gaffes Simmons made, and it created a pretty negative impression.
Now I’m optimistic that he’ll benefit from the Vic Fangio defense as much or more than any other member of the 2019 Denver Broncos.
Something that's really promising about Justin Simmons is how he brings what he's studied to the field. Check out how he's communicating to Cravens here. pic.twitter.com/hznwTHN1uF— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 25, 2019
Good run defender
Effective force player
Solid ability to key & read
Very good in Robber coverage
Good ball skills
Capable of playing trail technique
Watching Simmons’ 2018 tape, I was immediately struck by the sheer variety of his assignments from down to down.
On any given play, he could line up as a deep safety in a single or two high shell, or play in the box, or even line up in the slot. It seems simple on the surface, but each of those carries significantly different keys and responsibilities.
Wherever he lined up, Simmons shined as a run defender last year. Most defensive backs aren’t looking to mix it up in the muck with the hogs, but that isn’t Simmons. He stood out as a force player who would work to constrict alleys and reroute the ball back to his help inside, using his long arms to keep blockers off his body.
Coming downhill from single or two high, he also maintained good angles to the ball carrier and showed he could consistently contribute as a tackler, even against bigger backs.
When Simmons played against the pass, he excelled playing the robber. From there, his range and anticipation really flashed. He showed off his route recognition, ball skills, and athleticism to squeeze off receivers when he didn’t have to play over the top or mirror in single coverage.
Simmons does a great job cutting off Rivers' target here too. A lot of the best coverage plays go unnoticed because a QB is forced to adjust. #Broncos almost get a sack out of this. pic.twitter.com/5X4f6J9J77— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 25, 2019
Simmons also looked reliable in trail technique playing out of the slot and could stay on a receiver’s hip out into the route. In fact, Simmons was far and away the best safety in man coverage last year.
The fourth-year safety also has the kind of straight line speed and range to be an effective player in deep zone or bailing out from close to the line of scrimmage.
Needs to get weight under him in order to change directions
Can overrun ball carrier
Will underestimate elite speed receivers in deep coverage
Hand timing in press coverage is subpar
Missed 6 games to injury in career
The biggest problem Simmons has as a football player is something he’ll have trouble ever completely fixing - he’s a gazelle. His frame and long legs leads to some problems for him changing directions suddenly or stopping on a dime.
This issue presents itself most often when Simmons is lined up in coverage on a single receiver. It also hurts his deep range and causes him to overplay some tackles because he overruns the ball before he’s able to get his weight under him.
Against the run, Simmons’ lighter frame also creates some issues. He’ll give ground to blockers as he works to shed them and can give up yards after contact to the bigger backs he tackles. He’s also more of a dart-and-dodge kind of blitzer than a defender who will go through a blocker to impact the quarterback. In coverage, he can be boxed out by bigger receivers.
During OTAs, Simmons expressed his genuine excitement to be part of the Vic Fangio experiment.
“Obviously, looking at the production that he’s had on the safety side of it has been huge,” Simmons said, recalling watching film on the Bears defense last year. “Seeing those guys run around—Eddie Jackson and [Adrian] Amos making plays. I had the same feeling to when I was coming out of the draft process and watching Denver play in the Super Bowl. That looks like a defense that I want to be a part of. I was just super excited to hear that we picked him up and now I have a chance to put my footprint on the defense.”
Justin Simmons’ roster status with the Broncos
One thing that becomes painfully apparent is how miscast Simmons was in the Vance Joseph defense. The Broncos utilized man coverage more than any team but New England in 2018 and Simmons was routinely asked to cover a slot or tight end. This exposed his biggest weakness and leaned away from his strengths as a player. He was also asked to blitz quite regularly, which is a poor use of his skill set.
Vic Fangio’s system will provide Simmons with more opportunities to play as a deep safety or work out of the a robber role with help over the top. This should play off his strengths and hide the weaker parts of his game far more effectively. If he can stay healthy, there’s plenty of reason to believe that 2019 will be Simmons’ best in the NFL.
Will this be a breakout season for Justin Simmons?
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