As we edge closer to training camp, here's a look back at the safeties' offseason program.
As the 2021 offseason winds down and training camp approaches, we've turned our attention toward the season. Over the past few weeks, we've taken a look at each of the position groups on the Broncos' roster. In our look at each position, we'll fill you in on what we know about the group and what we hope to find out during training camp. We'll also identify a player to keep an eye on when practices and the preseason get underway shortly. We finish the series with a look at the Broncos' safety position.
What we know:
General Manager George Paton made a flurry of moves during his first offseason with the Broncos, but none was bigger than re-signing Pro Bowl and All-Pro safety Justin Simmons. When Paton arrived in Denver, he noted that keeping Simmons a Bronco was among his top priorities. He followed those proclamations with action, as Simmons signed a four-year contract that will keep him in Denver through at least the 2024 season.
In Simmons, the Broncos have an ultra-reliable ball-hawking safety. The former third-round pick set a new career-high with five interceptions last season, and he has at least three interceptions in each of his last three years. Only one safety in Broncos history has more interceptions in his first five seasons than Simmons' 16 career picks. As one of the top safeties in the league, Simmons should continue to anchor the unit.
The Broncos also re-signed Kareem Jackson to a one-year deal and spent a pair of fifth-round draft picks on Texas' Caden Sterns and Indiana's Jamar Johnson.
Trey Marshall and P.J. Locke will presumably compete with Sterns and Johnson for reserve roles behind Simmons and Jackson.
What we need to learn:
What's the future of the position?
Jackson re-signed on a one-year deal, but the Broncos will need to develop depth behind the hard-hitting player.
At Texas, Sterns was most productive as a freshman before seeing his production tail off during his final two seasons.
"Caden Sterns, the guy we took first from Texas, had a good season or two early in his career," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the draft. "Not so much this past season. He slipped a little bit. We're hopeful we can get him turned back around and playing up to his potential and his ability."
Johnson, meanwhile, recorded a career-high four interceptions in just eight games during his final season in Bloomington.
"We all had some good feelings about him," Fangio said of Johnson at the same post-draft press conference. "He is a guy that played well. Didn't tackle as well as he should've all of the time, which he alluded to with you guys. We like his talent, his potential and his ability."
Fangio said in early June that he was "pleased with their progress so far" during OTAs, and the two will look to continue their development in training camp. Johnson will likely miss at least the beginning of training camp, as the team placed him on its Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday.
Marshall has enough experience to push for a reserve role in the team's safety room, but the play of the safeties will be about more than finding players to back up Simmons and Jackson. The young players will all aim to make a strong impression in camp and the preseason in hopes of being the latest Broncos draft pick to someday earn a starting safety job.
Player to watch:
While Jackson will be worth watching — he didn't seem to lose a step in 2020 as a 32-year-old player — Simmons will draw most of the attention at the position. A season ago, Simmons proved again why he deserves to be mentioned along the best safeties in the game, and he was rewarded as such this offseason.
As Simmons enters Year 6, he'll aim to keep the strong play going and help the team match his success.
"For me, this is a big opportunity for me to really cement myself for years and years and years to come," Simmons said in March. "Like I said, from an individual aspect, of course, but more importantly, from a team goal, right? I want to make sure we're winning — getting back to winning our division, getting back into the playoffs, hosting home playoff games, and those are some of my team goals that I want to get back to."
Following Simmons' signing, Fangio explained how Simmons serves as a "multiplier" for other people on the team and how he can continue to improve.
"I don't see a glaring weakness, but I think there are things that he can do better," Fangio said. "We're looking for 20 better plays. You don't know when they are going to happen. [They] may involve him getting a few more picks, and [they] may involve him making a critical tackle over the course of the season. We're not talking about wholesale betterment. Everything is so tight in the NFL. If we can find him 10, 20, or 25 better plays than he's had so far in his career over the course of the 17 games that we're playing, that's what I'm talking about. A couple more picks, a couple more crucial stops in the tackling area and the things that aren't statistical — a better job of leading the secondary and affecting the whole defense. There are some players that are good players that need a caddy out there. He's a good player and he caddies for others. Those are hard to find."