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Leading the way: How Justin Simmons found his voice as a leader
To become the leader he is today, Justin Simmons applied the lessons he learned from legendary defenders from Denver’s Super Bowl 50 team.
By Ellie Kinney Dec 24, 2022

He may now be an established All-Pro veteran, but safety Justin Simmons started his professional football career just like everyone else: as a young rookie thrown into the deep end, fighting to keep his head above water in the much bigger, faster and more complex NFL.

Fresh out of Boston College in 2016, Simmons joined a Broncos team that had just won Super Bowl 50 a few months prior. The rookie's first glimpse at the NFL was a locker room full of champions basking in the glory of their recent victory.

Simmons was among the newest faces on a defense that was headlined by All-Pro honorees including safety T.J. Ward, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. and outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. It was a group full of brilliant defensive minds who knew what it took to win at the highest level, and Simmons got to jump right in the middle of it.

As a new kid coming in, Simmons knew that older players approaching contract years will sometimes withhold their knowledge if they view you as a threat to take their job. This wasn't the case with those around Simmons; even though the 2016 third-round pick's potential was clear from the beginning, the Broncos' veteran defensive backs guided him without hesitation, teaching him everything they knew.

"[Learning from them was] really what kind of changed my perspective on what the NFL looks like, what leadership looks like, how you're supposed to lead," Simmons said earlier this season. "They invited me over to watch film constantly, helped me with film study, just helped me from top to bottom on what it looks like to be a pro. That meant a lot to me, because they did it the right way."

The leadership from Ware and the other accomplished defenders on the 2016 Broncos was the blueprint for how Simmons has approached his own leadership style. Now in his seventh year, Simmons is one of the most highly respected and admired players in the organization. The two-time team captain is following in the footsteps of the leaders who came before him, sharing his expertise with every young player that joins the Broncos' defense.

"They did it the right way, and I'd be doing them a disservice if I didn't do that to the younger guys that keep coming into the locker room and I get to play with," Simmons said. "That's just how it's supposed to be."

Simmons started his career as the rookie looking up to the All-Pro defensive backs, and six years later, he has become the guy that all the young Broncos come to for advice and instruction.

Players gravitate to him on the field and in the locker room, knowing that the veteran will help them in any way he can.

"On and off the field, it just doesn't get any better than Justin," second-year safety Caden Sterns said earlier in the year. "Since I came in, he took me under his wing. … He takes a lot of guys under his wing. If you're a younger guy, you'd be dumb not to pay attention and follow his lead because he obviously does the right thing."

There are many small aspects of Simmons' game that Sterns is trying to replicate, including his movement, mannerisms and communication. Just by watching Simmons and talking to him about his approach, Sterns said that he has been able to grow as a player.

When Simmons was placed on injured reserve after suffering a thigh injury in Week 1, Sterns used what he'd learned from Simmons to fill in for the veteran at the free safety position. In those four games, Sterns recorded 19 tackles, four passes defensed and two interceptions. And while it was a great opportunity for Sterns, spending four weeks on the sideline also forced Simmons to find new ways to be a leader.

"It was fun to find a new role and to dip into a new environment, in terms of leadership," Simmons said ahead of his return in Week 6. "Like, learning how to lead without being there. I'm a lead-by-example type of guy, so I like to go out on the field and try to spark with a play or something like that. I couldn't do that. I had to find new ways to contribute to the guys. That was fun, figuring that out, but I definitely like playing way more. Hopefully that happens for a long time."

Any young player who's had the opportunity to learn from Simmons will tell you the same thing: If you're on his team, he will do everything in his power to help you reach your highest potential.

P.J. Locke, a third-year safety, worked his way onto the Broncos' roster after starting his NFL career as an undrafted free agent. He credits Simmons as a major reason he was able to improve his game, praising the veteran's leadership both on and off the field.

"He doesn't withhold any information," Locke said. "Any questions I ask him, if he [doesn't] know the answer, he's going to find the answer. We've developed a relationship off the field to where I can go to him for anything. My family's been to his house and vice versa."

With how influential the veteran leaders were to Simmons during his first year in the league, he puts an emphasis on being a guide and a resource for the rookies. Safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, a fifth-round pick by the Broncos in the 2022 NFL Draft, raved about Simmons' impact as he adjusts to playing at the NFL level.

"He leads by example, and also he does it vocally," Turner-Yell said earlier in the 2022 season. "He's a person that's open to anyone. If you ever have anything you're going through, on the field [or] off the field, he's always a phone call away. ... If we ever need anything and we want to come over to his house and watch film, we didn't need an invite. We could just call his phone and let him know, 'Hey, Justin, we're coming over to watch film.' He's been very welcoming. The second I got drafted, that was the first person besides [General Manager] George Paton and [Head] Coach [Nathaniel] Hackett, [Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero] and things like that … to text me, congratulate me about getting drafted to the Broncos. He's a great guy and a great leader."

Simmons' teammates consistently praise his leadership, but to the team captain, supporting the younger players is just part of who he is.

"Man, I'm in Year 7, and [I'm] a captain, and I'm realizing that guys are asking me advice and looking up to me, but I've just been doing me consistently and trying to be the best version of myself to as many guys as I can," Simmons said. "That stuff just naturally happens. And in the same breath, there are some things you think about from a leadership standpoint that you want to correct or address, but [I'm] just letting it naturally happen. I've always had a great locker room of guys. … It's just kind of naturally progressed along the way.

"For me, it's more like trying to be the same guy and trying to be there for the guys. Outside of football, it's just investing. I think that's the main thing, just being genuine and investing in the guys. Guys buy into that, so I've really invested with the DBs and the guys that I'm close with in the locker room. I think that's where you really build that rapport of leadership."

The Broncos' performance this season has, of course, put Simmons' leadership to the test.

With eight one-score losses, it would be easy to become frustrated. But Simmons, whose only winning season in the NFL occurred during his rookie year, has learned to lead in the face of adversity.

In the most difficult moments, Simmons refuses to put even an ounce of blame on his teammates. As a captain, he takes personal accountability for the team's struggles and vows to find answers.

"I'll do whatever it takes to win," Simmons said after the Broncos' overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 11. "I've been trying to learn and grow. ... It is on myself, it's on some of the guys that are leaders on the offense, and that's OK with me because it is my job to figure that out. We are just not doing it, so I have to figure out a way to do that."

The Broncos' locker room has stayed united through the tough times, and it is largely because of the culture that Simmons has cultivated in his seven years in Denver. When he entered the league, his mentors taught him how to be selfless and resilient — and now in a leadership role, these are qualities he has instilled in his teammates.

"I think everyone knows, the best teams in the NFL are player-led teams," Simmons said. "So, learning from 'Russ' [Russell Wilson] and learning from the guys that I've been around for so long, you're starting to see how that actually works. There's no [group of] guys that I've ever been a part of where you have to worry about selfish, individual plays or attitudes that are affecting the team in a harmful way. As a leader, it's not the coaches' job, it's not George's job as the GM, it's not the owners' job. It's on the players to be able to get that culture and to be able to sustain that."

As the Broncos look to turn the page in the offseason, Simmons will lead the way toward a brighter 2023.

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