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'He's just scratching the surface': Why Justin Simmons is critical to the Broncos' future

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Nearly five years ago, before Justin Simmons cemented his place among the league's best safeties, he waited until the end of the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft to hear his name called.

The Broncos selected Simmons with the 98th-overall pick, making him the seventh safety off the board. At the time, Simmons profiled as a mid-round pick who some scouting services believed was destined to be a reserve player.

After a second-team All-Pro nod and Pro Bowl selection through the first five years of his career, it's clear Simmons has proven many of the experts wrong.

"He had a lot of the same traits you see now," said Broncos General Manager George Paton on Monday while reflecting on scouting Simmons. "The thing I remember is he needed to get stronger. He wasn't fully developed, but you saw the range, you saw the ball skills. You saw the ability to play in space. He was just undersized a little bit. He hadn't grown into his body yet.

"I think the entire league missed on him, because he lasted until the end of the third round. Since he's come here, he's gotten stronger, he's gotten bigger, more confident."

Minnesota, where Paton worked at the time, didn't select a safety until the seventh round. Simmons, meanwhile, has arguably found more success than any player taken before him. He is one of three safeties from that draft to make a Pro Bowl, and he is the only safety with multiple interceptions in each of his five NFL seasons. Only Kevin Byard has more career interceptions (18) than Simmons' 16 picks.

In Chicago, where then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with a talented safety duo in Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson, Simmons wasn't necessarily on Fangio's radar.

"To be honest with you, I don't think I watched Justin when he came out," said Fangio with a smile, as Simmons shook his head alongside him. "I left that up to [current Broncos Defensive Coordinator] Ed Donatell. Sheesh, we could've had him. I don't remember a whole lot, to be honest with you, but I'm glad we've got him now."

It didn't take long for Simmons himself to realize he belonged in the league and that he had the ability to make game-changing plays.

"My first pick just kind of set the trail, I guess, just in terms of confidence and knowing I can do this," Simmons said.

In his second career start — a Christmas night game against the Kansas City Chiefs — Simmons undercut a wobbly Alex Smith pass to record that first interception, and he nearly returned it for a touchdown.

"Tremendous player by the young rookie on the back end who has a bright future," NBC's Cris Collinsworth said on the broadcast.

Collinsworth's comment proved prescient, and in today's NFL, both Paton and Fangio are happy that Simmons is on their side — regardless of how they ended up with the All-Pro player.

As Fangio explained Monday, teams' proclivity for three wide receiver sets has increased the value of a talented safety. And in Simmons, the Broncos have one of the best.

"To have safeties that can play the deep part of the field is important, but also to have safeties that when we want to bring them down and cover wide receivers or a really good tight end, that's part of the job description too now," Fangio said. "It happens more often. The game is more wide open — not on a bigger field, per se, but the ball is spread around the field more than it used to. So the safety position has become a very, very important position, and we're happy to have him here."

Paton echoed Fangio's sentiment about the changing nature of the game, and he emphasized the unique role Simmons can play as "a top safety in the NFL" to slow down opposing offenses.

"It's a space and cover league," Paton said. "No one can play in space and cover as good as Justin at safety in the NFL. It's such a passing league, and his ability to play the run and play in space and blitz and cover tight ends, it's huge to have that on your football team."

Paton called out Simmons' instincts, mental acuity, athletic ability, range and ball skills as his key traits — and he believes the five-year veteran can continue to improve.

"He's just scratching the surface," Paton said. "We believe he'll only get better, and he's going to help us win a lot of football games moving forward."

Simmons, too, agreed that he hasn't yet played his best football. As the Broncos look for Simmons to add even more value than the nine interceptions and 24 passes defensed he's recorded over the past two seasons, they're simply hoping the Pro Bowler can add a few more positive plays in 2021.

"I don't see a glaring weakness, but I do think there's things he can do better," Fangio said. "We're looking for 20 better plays — and you don't know when they're going to happen — which may involve him getting a few more picks, which may involve him making a critical tackle over the course of a season. We're not talking about wholesale betterment. Everything's so tight in the NFL, if we can find him 10 to 20 to 25 better plays than maybe he's had so far in his career over the course of the 17 games, 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 even statistical: being even a better leader in the secondary and affecting a whole defense. There are some good players that need a caddy out there. He's a good player and he caddies for others. Those are hard to find."

With the contract negotiations in the past, Simmons will be able to participate in the team's offseason program — whether virtual or in-person — without the lingering concern of finalizing a long-term deal.

"I know how important it is to be here Day 1," Simmons said. "Even if the system's still the same, you have new people. It's important Day 1 to really build those bonds and get everyone on the same page as close as possible. Going into training camp and into the season, you're maximizing your time as a unit so that you can play to the best of your abilities."

Simmons is hardly the only one glad to have a deal in place that will keep him in Denver through 2024. Both Fangio and Paton expressed their excitement that Simmons will remain the leader of the team's secondary.

"It's really nice to reward players who deserve it, and Justin definitely deserved it," Paton said.

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