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Why didn’t the Broncos extend Justin Simmons before free agency?

The question hangs over every move.

Denver Broncos v New England Patriots
Justin Simmons is a young core veteran. Paying him should be easy.
Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Twice now the Broncos have had months to negotiate a long-term extension with Justin Simmons. Twice now the general manager decided to place a franchise tender on the All Pro. Whether it be John Elway or George Paton, there seems to be a reluctance to extend a consummate professional who embodies everything Vic Fangio could ask for from a safety.

What gives?

Elway’s decision in 2020 happened with Covid-19 hanging over everything. When the Broncos failed to extend Justin Simmons before the July deadline last summer, there was some confusion over Covid’s role. 9News’ Mike Klis first claimed that the lack of Pro Bowls hurt Simmons before he heavily implied that Covid influenced the Broncos’ thinking while NFL Network’s James Palmer reported that it didn’t play a role.

Since 2020 came to a merciful end, there’s been misinformation that the Broncos weren’t able to negotiate with Simmons’ camp, so I double-checked with Over the Cap’s Nick Korte and Pro Football Focus’ Brad Spielberger. While NFL teams have a deadline in July for extending current year franchise players, they’re able to resume negotiations with their franchise players after the Super Bowl.

Even if you account for the weeks Elway spent looking for a new general manager, Paton had a month to work on an extension with Simmons before he decided to apply a second franchise tag. Doing so meant the Broncos would need to account for a 20% raise upon his previous tender, regardless of the state of the salary cap. As of today, Simmons counts for $13,729,000, nearly 7% of the Broncos’ current cap.

One could argue that the tag is better than nothing, and I’ll admit I much prefer Simmons return to Denver than leave in free agency. It still doesn’t answer the question about why Paton and Simmons’ camp have failed to agree to a long-term extension. As Over the Cap’s Nick Korte laid out back in November, if the Broncos intend to build around Simmons for the long-term, a market setting extension can still lower Simmons’ cap hit in 2021.

Hours away from a free agent landscape where the Broncos will need to juggle their cap commitments against building a competitive roster, it’s hard to ignore that the failure to extend one of the best safeties in the league may impact Paton’s process. Before you ask, it seems hard to imagine it has anything to do with Deshaun Watson unless the Broncos plan to wait for Justin Simmons to sign his franchise tender to trade him.

It’s entirely possible Simmons’ camp and the Broncos are further apart on what he’s owed in a new deal than we’ve heard to this point. There’s currently a notable lag in the top of the safety market compared to other positions, which is one reason why you can argue it was savvy to retain Simmons on the tag in 2020 since his cap hit was just $11.4 million, a similar 2020 cap figure for Jurrell Casey.

Simmons’ current $13.729 million cap figure still leaves him behind five other safeties, but after him the next highest APY is Devin McCourty’s at $11.5 million. McCourty’s contract is notable because Klis reported that the Broncos tried to sign Simmons to a similar deal at the July deadline last summer. Palmer reported that the Broncos offered him a contract that would “put Simmons among the top tier of safeties.” If Simmons hits free agency, there is little doubt his new contract would top the $14.75 million Budda Baker currently averages.

Perhaps the Broncos are reluctant to pay Simmons market-setting money because they see him as a product of the Vic Fangio defense? It wasn’t hard to see a Simmons breakout coming when Elway hired the Bears’ defensive coordinator, I predicted as much before the 2019 season. With the Broncos’ head coach on a hot seat under new management, it could make sense for Paton to wait and see how the new year goes before he commits record-breaking money to a safety.

There’s very few other reasons for the Broncos to wait on a deal. It currently looks like Jamal Adams, Marcus Maye, Marcus Williams, Anthony Harris, and John Johnson could receive new extensions before the deadline to extend Simmons on July 15th. With the way Seattle traded picks to New York for Adams, he will almost certainly reset whatever the current market is sitting at.

If the Broncos intent to keep Justin Simmons for the long-term, it makes sense to sign him before Adams breaks a glass ceiling.