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Justin Simmons, heart of "Baby No-Fly," ready to join big boys

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --"Baby No-Fly" is about to grow up.

One of its members, Justin Simmons, is now a first-teamer in the wake of T.J. Ward's release and is expected to start the regular-season opener, just as he did in the preseason after Ward injured his hamstring. Another young safety, Will Parks, will play extensively when the Broncos go to their dime package.

In June, Simmons referred to himself, Parks and other young members of the secondary as "Baby No-Fly." It was a term of affection and respect for the players that stood above them on the depth chart.

"You can't just come in and be established as part of the 'No-Fly.' I think Will and I earned that over the course of the year, helping contribute in that, the second straight year of being the No. 1 passing defense," Simmons said Monday.

"Obviously, we're still earning our way. We still haven't officially earned those stripes. I mean, this is our second year in the league. We still have so much to learn, so much to accomplish, so you can't just automatically be on that."

But "Baby No-Fly" was also about setting an expectation level that if and when their time to contribute arrived, they would hold themselves to the same standard as the Pro Bowlers on the first team.

That time is now. Just because Simmons doesn't have an All-Pro or Pro Bowl selection or AFC Defensive Player of the Week trophy on his ledger doesn't mean he won't be held to the same standard as Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, Darian Stewart and Bradley Roby.

"Those guys, they demand excellence," Simmons said. "You can't just come in and be mediocre. Everything has to be perfect with those guys. It's the reason why Will and I love playing with them -- every day is demanding on watching film, making sure you're mentally and physically prepared for what's going on. It's great."

They know Simmons is ready to start.

"You see it. You see his production in OTAs," Talib said. "You see his production last year. He's a smart kid. It's not like we have to worry about him knowing his assignments or knowing what the other team is doing. He is professional. He is mature. He's married. He's going to go home and study like a vet. This should be an easy transition for him."

Simmons' two starts for Ward at the end of the 2016 season are a reason why the transition should be a smooth one, even though his skill set is not the same as Ward's.

"There was no coming in and being like, 'Oh, well, he's a rookie, so we'll just wait until next year.' It was like, 'No, these are significant snaps. You need to do your job. You need to make sure you know what you are doing so we can continue [to try and make the] postseason,'" Simmons said. "So those types of snaps trickled into the offseason, training camp."

And now he gets tossed into the fire. In the first two weeks, he'll go against passing games that feature two potential Hall of Fame tight ends -- Antonio Gates of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1 and Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2.

"Baby No-Fly" will have to grow up in a hurry.

"I feel like every week we're playing a top tight end, top wide receiver, top quarterback. That's what the league is, right?" Simmons said.

"Antonio Gates, Hall of Famer, right out of the gate. It's going to be a great challenge for us. You can't call yourself the best if you don't go up against the best. It's nothing but excitement on this end, and I'm looking forward to it."

Flip through some of the Broncos' recent season openers ahead of the 2017 opener against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Broncos have won five straight openers. (Photos by AP)

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