Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons have been one of the league’s elite safety tandems since 2019, but in 2021, we saw Jackson take a step back in his coverage ability while also seeing some flashes of greatness from 5th round pick, Caden Sterns. Kareem entered the ‘22 offseason as a free agent, and it seemed like a longshot for George Paton to retain the veteran safety. Luckily for the second year in a row, Jackson chose to remain in Denver on a 1yr/$5M deal with the hopes of aiding the team in a deep playoff run. Will his role be as the day one starter?
Kareem has been one of my favorite DBs to watch for a long time. Possibly the pound for pound biggest hitter in the league, no player disregards his own body for the sake of making plays quite like Jackson. During his first two seasons in Denver, he and Simmons graded out as the best safety coverage duo in the league, according to PFF. Additionally, he is a key cog in the Bronco locker-room; a major vocal leader, one of the longest tenured Broncos on the roster, and the longest career of any of the active players.
2021 saw Jackson struggle to keep up in coverage on the back-end, as seemingly every week there was a blown coverage on a deep pass, typically over the head of Jackson. He posted his worst coverage grade in his career as a safety, and gave up a passer rating of 111.8 when Qbs threw his way. His struggles in the pass game were accompanied by tackling issues, where he missed a total of 18 on the year and posted a career worst 17.1% missed tackle rate.
While the drop-off in play was disheartening, it’s hard to be terribly shocked, as Kareem has been one of the true ironmen of the league for over a decade. This guy has played over TEN THOUSAND NFL snaps, and as I can’t emphasize enough, he wasn’t out there avoiding contact. He’s 34 years old playing in a 2-high shell that will require him to display the range he had in 2019. I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s best interest to expect over 800 high-quality snaps out of Kareem in 2022, but maybe the best argument for allowing Kareem to play more of a rotational role is the possibility that Caden Sterns is an up and coming star in Denver’s secondary.
I love watching Kareem Jackson hit dudes. pic.twitter.com/iejP1O6AkU— Frankie Abbott (@FrankiesFilm) June 10, 2022
Sterns was drafted in the fifth round out of Texas in 2021, but his athletic profile shows him to be one of the rangier prospects drafted overall. After a highly-regarded freshman season that projected Sterns as an early pick, Sterns underwent major knee surgery and endured a plethora of injuries for the remainder of his Longhorn career. Questions were raised on if he’d maintain the same range and explosiveness he once displayed, causing him to slip to the Denver Broncos at pick 152.
Even though Caden only played 311 total defensive snaps, seemingly every time he touched the field he was making plays on the ball. It didn’t take Sterns long to make an impact in limited playtime, as by his 30th regular season snap he had already collected his first NFL interception against Zach Wilson and the Jets. Sterns was one of only three Broncos with multiple interceptions (2) and managed a missed tackle rate of only 11.5% in his limited opportunities.
While he spent the majority of the year as the third safety, he was forced into the starting role for weeks 12 and 18 against two high-powered division rivals (Chiefs and Chargers), and more than held his own in Jackson’s absence. While it may seem like a big ask to have him take the reins from Kareem, we saw last year that the defense can play as well, if not better, with Sterns patrolling the field.
Sterns was drafted as a gamble on athletic traits, and that gamble has seemingly paid off. At a time in the league when having multiple field-shrinking safeties is becoming more of a necessity, Sterns can be the perfect ‘Robin’ Denver will need next to Justin Simmon’s ‘Batman’ in the coming years; but is that time now?
Watched all 311 Caden Sterns snaps from '21 and came away believing he could be the day-1 starter next to Simmons. Incredible range and ball skills, who can trigger downhill to stop the run in an instant and finishes open field tackles with ease. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/Z2AUUtVBrY— Frankie Abbott (@FrankiesFilm) June 22, 2022
I have no doubt that Kareem can still put elite safety play on the field and will bring energy to the locker room that can’t be measured. In no way do I believe Kareem should play a minimal role in this defense, because the physicality and instinctiveness he plays with will be essential for the defense to succeed. However, I do believe that Kareem’s play last season was particularly concerning, and he isn’t getting any younger having turned 34 in April. Caden was drafted to develop into Jackson’s replacement, and in the flashes we saw from him last year, he was already playing better than 2021’s Kareem Jackson.
The question now becomes: was 2021 Kareem Jackson an anomaly, or is he who we should come to expect? Can Caden Sterns replicate his impressive play on a larger scale? And how would the defense adjust to one of its primary voices being moved to a less integral role?
Regardless of who the listed starter is, it should come as no surprise to see both Sterns and Jackson see high volumes of snaps throughout the season. Both flex the ability to shine as dime-backers in Evero’s scheme when necessary and will be integral pieces to Denver’s secondary and defense overall. If Caden and Kareem both continue on the trajectory they were headed in 2021, Sterns deserves the chance as Justin Simmons’ partner at safety.
Who plays more defensive snaps in 2022?
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