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Will the Broncos extend Justin Simmons?

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COVID-19 complicates things, but Simmons deserves a long-term deal.

Detroit Lions v Denver Broncos
Simmons is an elite player who has just entered his prime. The Broncos need to lock him up.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Ever since I began studying the Broncos’ film, Justin Simmons has shown flashes of dominance. I started writing for Mile High Report three summers ago, and while his 2017 ended with an injury, he showed moments that led me to writing this:

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.

2018 was a bit of a roller coaster for Simmons, just as it was many other members of the Broncos’ defense. He played every snap that season, but was asked to play so many roles it negatively impacted his overall performance. He even mixed in snaps at cornerback against the Cleveland Browns due to Chris Harris’ season-ending injury.

Simmons comes up big to stop David Njoku a yard short on third and 6.
Simmons comes up big to stop David Njoku a yard short on third and 6.

No member of the Broncos benefited from Vic Fangio replacing Vance Joseph as much as the fourth-year safety did. The new Don of defense ran more zone than his predecessor, and leaned into two high shells far more than Broncos’ Country had seen.

The system meant more checks and adjustments, which put more on the safeties mentally. At the same time, Simmons’ role would now be clearly defined and he’d have an opportunity to show off the biggest strengths of his game:

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 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.

Low and behold, Justin Simmons was either the best or second-best player on the Broncos’ roster a year ago. His ability to mirror reached an elite level, and the game slowed down for him in a way that makes him jump off the tape every time I go back over the defensive tape.

At just 26 years old, it’s reasonable to believe his best football is still ahead of him. Pair that with the kind of character and work ethic that’s been apparent since John Elway drafted him in the third round out of Boston College? There’s not a doubt in my mind that the Broncos need to do everything necessary to lock up the All Pro safety for the long haul, price be damned.

As of this writing, there’s less than a week for the Broncos to do just that. While the franchise tag ensures Vic Fangio’s defense will still have Simmons locking down the back end in 2020, it also means the deadline to extend him is 4 p.m. EST on July 15. If Elway balks at the cost, Simmons can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

Rumor has been that Justin Simmons’ camp turned down the opportunity to extend with the Broncos back before the 2019 season, in essence betting on himself. It was a smart decision then, but no one could have foreseen how COVID-19 would complicate things. It now looks inevitable that most, if not all NFL teams, will play the 2020 season with fewer fans in the stands, if they play at all. It’s hard to predict how the fallout will impact the salary cap, but it can’t help.

From Simmons’ perspective, a shrinking cap means unrestricted free agency may not be the windfall it looked like back in January. Even if the league agrees to measures to alleviate the cap strain, many will need to tighten their budgets.

From a team’s business and long-term perspective, this adds an element of risk to signing Justin Simmons. If total revenue shrinks as much as some predict, the Broncos will join more than half the league in cap hell. Whether you believe he’s the best safety in the league as I do, or merely a top five player, the way contracts work is that Simmons has every right to expect to reset the safety market.

Prior to the looming cap questions, the deal looked imminent. One of the big benefits to a QB1, WR1, and starting Edge player on rookie contracts means the Broncos looked like they’d be flush for cap space in 2021.

Now a fair contract for Justin Simmons could mean tough decisions elsewhere. It could even cost the Broncos Von Miller.

While I wonder where the pandemic will push things going forward, it’s foolish to operate in fear here. The Broncos’ defense has gotten older just as the offense has seen a complete makeover, and Simmons and Bradley Chubb look like core pieces.

If Elway still holds to the mantra that he wants to “win from now on,” it shouldn’t be a tough decision with Simmons.

Pay the man.

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