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State of the Broncos’ roster: Broncos need a stronger room at safety

Justin Simmons isn’t enough in a division full of top wide receivers and tight ends.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The outlook for the Broncos’ safeties seemed promising back in July.

In fact, Scotty Payne wrote that one reason the Broncos’ defense has remained good in recent years despite constant upheaval and poor offense was the safety group, led primarily by longtime Bronco Justin Simmons “who continues to be one of the best safeties in the NFL.”

And then behind him was what seemed to be solid depth. From veteran Kareem Jackson to promising third-year safety Caden Sterns, special teams ace P.J. Locke, an intriguing second-year safety in Delarrin Turner-Yell and a big rookie in J.L. Skinner.

It was a talented group with beaming potential under a former defensive back himself, newly-hired-but-returning-to-Denver-in-a-new-role Vance Joseph. But early injuries in the room and some high criticism after early losses made for a tough year at safety in Denver.

Now Jackson is gone and Simmons is potential trade bait if the Broncos need to move up in the draft to go after a QB head coach Sean Payton wants to actually mentor. That leaves some young guys still trying to prove they can be starters but it leaves more questions than answers at this point in the offseason.

And to quote Payne this week, the outlook is even more bleak than that.

“Simmons could be traded, Sterns is always hurt, Locke is a free agent, Skinner barely played and DTY tore his ACL and sucks anyways.”

So there you have it. But for more of a breakdown, read on.

Justin Simmons

Contract status for 2024: Final year of a 4-year, $61 million contract

Age: 31

Key statistics: As the elder statesman in the room, Simmons’ contributions were big but not quite as big as previous years. He had three interceptions for 39 yards, two pass break-ups and one sack. He also added two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. One of the better omissions from his season was not being part of the 70-20 thumping by the Dolphins where the Broncos’ defense was decimated. How much of a difference he might have made in the outcome had he been healthy is hard to say but not likely preventing 50 points.

Last season in review: With an early injury that kept him out of two games, Simmons’ season was not as dominating stats-wise as the year before, but the Pro Bowler and Second Team All Pro was certainly a key factor in the five-game win streak that had all of the NFL marveling at the defensive turnaround. And No. 31 was by far the best safety on the field. Along with cornerback Pat Surtain II, the duo helped wreak some havoc for Joseph’s defense. But the inability to maintain the dominance proves Simmons (and even Surtain) can’t do it alone.

Projection: Standing to make $14.5 million this year, not having Simmons on the roster frees up some cap, but it’s likely only a move if the Broncos want to trade him in a package to move up in the draft. And if they do, there will be a big hole in the secondary.

P.J. Locke

Contract status for 2024: Free Agent

Age: 26 (27 on Feb. 12)

Key statistics: Playing in his fourth pro season, Locke played fewer games this season but contributed more to the stat board, logging a 14-yard interception against the Packers plus two forced fumbles, three sacks and five pass breakups.

Last season in review: Locke’s interception in Week 7 was the first of his NFL career, and it secured a 19-17 win for the Broncos that also jump-started Denver’s five-game win streak. The special teams ace was starting in place of veteran Jackson, who was spending time on the bench for suspensions due to illegal hits.

Projection: Locke made the most of his time on the field while Jackson held peace talks with Roger Goodell, and as Locke hits free agency, the Broncos will have to decide whether to re-sign the Texas native or let him test the market. Given his contributions and experience under Joseph, plus the lack of depth, keeping him seems smart if the price is right.

Delarrin Turner-Yell

Contract status for 2024: Third year of 4-year, $3.9 million rookie deal

Age: 24

Last season in review: Turner-Yell was called into action a lot in his first two years with the Broncos, playing 14 games as a rookie and 16 this past season - but not many stats to show for it. An ACL tear in Week 17 against the Chargers ended his sophomore season, and he was placed on season-ending IR before the final game of the season. That makes for a tough start to 2024 as he’ll be wrapping up rehab and strength training in hopes of competing for a spot on the roster.

JL Skinner

Contract status for 2024: Second year of $4 million rookie deal

Age: 22

Key statistics: None, lol

Last season in review: The biggest highlight for Skinner is that he finally saw the field in late November for the win over the Vikings and again for the final game of the season against the Raiders. Having to work back from a pectoral muscle injury sustained in March, the rookie was playing from behind all season. Hopefully the little experience he got will translate to big growth this offseason and a more promising sophomore campaign.

Caden Sterns

Contract status for 2024: Final year of a 4-year $3.8 million rookie deal

Age: 24

Key statistics: Poor Caden Sterns. His rookie year saw some promising statistics - appearing in 15 games (2 starts), totaling 24 tackles (19 solo), two sacks (12 yds.), two interceptions (47 yds.) and five passes defensed. But unfortunately, the statistic becoming the most cited is the number of seasons ended by injury in his next two years - two. Sterns tore his patella tendon Week 1 against the Raiders in 2023. The promising young safety had missed 12 games the year before after injuring his hip and requiring surgery five games into the season.

Projection: If Sterns can stay healthy, he has a good chance of becoming a major contributor to a group that desperately needs it. Let’s tell @GMFB to stop projecting Broncos players who will be “names to know” because they jinxed us big-time.