As the end of the 2021 season draws closer, ESPN has taken a look at the league’s best defensive backs in 25 different categories, with more than one Bronco making the cut.
Safety Justin Simmons was named the best safety ball hawk — a fitting title for the defensive leader, who is tied for the most interceptions at his position (5) and second among safeties in passes defensed (12) this season. And while he earned this spot on ESPN's list, Matt Bowen notes that Simmons is also one of the most complete safeties in the game.
"Simmons could have been the guy as the most complete safety or best in run support," Bowen wrote. "And he's up the list for best range, too. I love his fit under Vic Fangio in Denver, and he has developed into one of the league's best defensive players."
While Simmons could have earned a spot on ESPN's list in several categories, his disruptive abilities in the defensive backfield have shined especially bright this season.
"We need to talk about Simmons' ball skills more," Bowen wrote. "He has picked off five passes and has broken up 12 more. Those are big numbers for a safety. He has smooth range from over the top and an awareness level that is off the charts. Simmons has smart, disciplined eyes in the Broncos secondary."
The only other Bronco to earn a spot on ESPN's list was cornerback Pat Surtain II, who secured the best rookie cornerback title thanks to an impressive 2021 campaign.
"A corner with multidimensional traits and upper-tier physical tools, the first-round pick out of Alabama has already intercepted four passes -- which includes a pick-six -- to go along with 12 pass breakups," Bowen wrote. "Surtain can play as a rolled-up corner in coach Vic Fangio's scheme and pedal in quarters coverage, and he will challenge receivers in man technique.
Surtain leads all rookie cornerbacks with four interceptions through Week 15, and he has excelled in man coverage, containing some of the best wide receivers in the league this season. But Surtain's maturity and understanding of the game has helped to take his game to the next level.
"I see transition speed on the tape here, plus an understanding of where his help is in coverage," Bowen wrote. "Surtain has the competitive juice I would want in my secondary as a defensive backs coach. He has been targeted 73 times as the nearest defender in coverage this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but he has allowed just 34 catches and 5.4 yards per attempt. He's on his way to being an elite cover guy."
Below the Fold
Inside linebacker Jonas Griffith joined the Broncos as part of a trade with the 49ers in August, and he has contributed mostly on special teams since arriving in Denver. But after injuries at the position propelled him up the depth chart, Griffith took full advantage of his first career start vs. Cincinnati in Week 15, recording nine tackles, a tackle for loss and two QB hits.
"Denver has had five different starting inside linebacker combinations this year and seven different starters at the position," the Denver Post's Kyle Newman wrote. "Griffith is the latest to step into that role, and with Kenny Young still in the league's concussion protocol, Griffith is in line for another start Sunday in Las Vegas alongside Baron Browning."
Browning, a rookie who has also earned a starting role after injuries to starters Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, spoke highly of Jonas' first defensive performance.
"I had fun playing with Jonas and he played a hell of a game (against the Bengals)," Browning said. "He was all over the place, flying around. He kind of surprised a lot of people by his play, but I wasn't surprised at all. I have a lot of faith in him, having seen him in practice since he's been here."