ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Head Coach Vic Fangio has worked with top-notch safeties before.
In his 33 years in the NFL, Fangio has coached five different safeties to a combined six Pro Bowl appearances.
Most recently, Fangio helped Chicago's Eddie Jackson reach a Pro Bowl and earn first-team All-Pro honors in 2018.
When Fangio moved on to Denver to become the Broncos' head coach, Justin Simmons became the latest beneficiary of his coaching.
In his first year in Fangio's scheme, the fourth-year player turned in his best NFL season as he tallied a career-high four interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
And though Simmons was among the most notable Pro Bowl snubs, he earned second-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press and graded out as Pro Football Focus' top safety in football.
"He played great for us," Fangio said at his season-ending press conference. "I think he'll still at the stage of his career where he can still improve more, especially within the inner workings of our defense and mastering some of the things we do even better, which will only come through reps. It won't come through meetings. Really a good football player, a really good person and a really good teammate. He's everything we want in a player."
Simmons recorded at least two interceptions in each of his first three seasons, but he doubled that number in 2019 as he played every snap for the second consecutive season.
Perhaps his most impressive interception came in a Week 15 game against the Chiefs. With Kansas City up 20 points in the fourth quarter, Simmons prevented the margin from growing. On a snowy field, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took a shotgun snap and scrambled to his left and then back to his right. For nine seconds, he evaded Denver defenders before firing a pass from the 22-yard line to the near pylon.
Until late in the play, Simmons stood his ground in the middle of the end zone as he read Mahomes' eyes and guarded the center of the field. As Mahomes broke to his right, though, so did Simmons. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound player charged toward the pylon and slid in between the football and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
During those nine seconds, Simmons demonstrated a combination of football IQ and athleticism as he saved at least six points for his team. The play also illustrated how Simmons and Fangio's defense work together in lockstep.
"In Vic's system, there's a lot of stress … there's just stress at every position, but I think a little bit more so at the safety spot," Simmons said in late December. "You're asked to do a lot — you're asked to make a lot of the checks, a lot of the calls. … It's just a lot on your plate, call-wise. Basically, not everything's on paper. You go over all these scenarios, through every call, and not every one call is played the same to every offensive formation and set. You really have to compartmentalize the game in front of you and really see how an offense is attacking you to put your defense in the best position to be successful.
"With that being said, I say that obviously this defense is great for myself, but I also say I make it work because I'm good at compartmentalizing what the offense is giving us and breaking it down and using the tools that are given to me to set up our defense to be as successful as possible."
Against the Chiefs, Simmons diagnosed Mahomes' options, sniffed out the play and snagged an interception.
The Broncos hope Simmons continues to make those plays, and they plan to have him back in Denver even as his rookie contract is set to expire.
"We want him back," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said on Dec. 30. "You know the options there. Before we came down [to the press conference], I talked to Justin and said, 'You know what, we want you back.' He's a great football player, but he's a better man. What he does outside of this building and what he's done in Denver has been tremendous — [it's] the type of guy he is. These are the type of guys that we want on this football team. Obviously, we have the franchise [tag] option there, but we'd like to get something done with Justin for the long term."
Simmons' durability — he's played the most consecutive snaps of any defender in the league — and his improved play have him poised to etch his name among the best safeties in Broncos' history.
He recorded the fourth-most interceptions of any Broncos safety through his first four seasons, and another strong season in 2020 could leave him even higher in the rankings. If Simmons posts another four-interception season, he would be tied with Charlie Greer for the third-most interceptions for a Broncos safety in his first five seasons.
Simmons also made an increased impact near the line of scrimmage in 2019, as he made a pair of game-changing plays with his sure tackling. In a Week 9 win over the Browns, Simmons crept up to the line of scrimmage on a critical third-and-1. Cleveland trailed by just five points and possessed the ball at the Denver 25-yard line with just over four minutes to go in the fourth quarter as Baker Mayfield prepared to take the under-center snap. Simmons lurked 9 yards deep before exploding toward the line of scrimmage a moment before Mayfield received the snap and handed it to Nick Chubb.
Simmons came untouched off the right side of the offensive line as Chubb tried to run to his left. He never made it to the line to gain, as Simmons knifed him down from behind in the backfield for a 3-yard loss. The Browns failed to complete the ensuing fourth-down attempt, and the Broncos ran out the clock.
Three games later, Simmons made another play on a third-and-1. With just over a minute to play, Philip Rivers and the Chargers were already in field-goal range trailing by three. Simmons guaranteed the Broncos' AFC West rival wouldn't take the lead with a touchdown. From the shotgun, Rivers took the snap and turned toward his right, where Keenan Allen was breaking free on an out route after lining up in a bunch formation tight to the offensive line.
Allen caught the pass, but Simmons hit him immediately and prevented him from earning a first down. The Chargers chose to kick a 46-yard field goal to tie the game, and Courtland Sutton drew a pass-interference penalty on the Broncos' next possession to set Brandon McManus up for the game winner.
Simmons finished the season as the top-rated tackler among safeties who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
The good news for Broncos fans hoping to watch Simmons patrol the defensive backfield for seasons to come? He's been clear about his desire to continue his career in Denver.
"In my opinion, if a team wants you, you'll be here," Simmons said. "It'll be a blessing either way. I've said it all season long, it's no shocker that I want to stay. I love the defense. It works for me, I think I make it work just as well. I think it's a good relationship. With that being said, it just has to work out. There's no hiding that I want it to work out. I just hope it does."