ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On the day he signed a four-year contract to remain in Denver through the 2024 season, All-Pro safety Justin Simmons stood on the turf field in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse and looked up at the Ring of Fame and Hall of Fame banners that circle the field.
Legendary Broncos safeties Steve Atwater, John Lynch, Dennis Smith, Billy Thompson and Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin were among the faces staring down at Simmons. As Simmons prepares to enter the next chapter of his career with the Broncos, he acknowledged he's thought about if he's on a path to one day join them.
"Anyone that knows Broncos football history knows that safeties have been the best of the best here," Simmons told DenverBroncos.com on Friday. "As a safety coming in, even my first year here behind guys like T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, you just want to make sure that you're bringing up their mantle and showing it with pride. That's something to be proud of: the history and the lineage of the safeties that have been here. The cool part about it is, every time you come into the indoor [facility] or you're walking through the halls in the facility, they're advertised everywhere.
"Even if you had a good year, no one even cares about the year you had. It's all about stacking them. The guys all around here — Atwater, [Hall of Famer Brian] Dawkins, Lynch — from top down, there's so many different guys that you're keeping that tradition going.
"The extension is great, and … now that the bar is set even higher, I've got to make sure I'm doing what needs to be done."
In the first five years of his career, Simmons has staked his claim among the best safeties in franchise history. In 2019, he became just the fifth safety in team history to earn All-Pro honors, as he was named to the second team. Three of the other four players are in the team's Ring of Fame, while Dawkins was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2018. Simmons then made a Pro Bowl in 2020 as he recorded a career-high five interceptions.
Simmons' 16 interceptions through his first five seasons are the second most in team history by a Broncos defender since the merger. He also already ranks fifth all-time in interceptions by a Broncos safety, and he is one of three Broncos safeties since the AFL-NFL merger to start their career with multiple interceptions in each of their first five seasons.
For the former third-round compensatory pick, the success and ensuing contract is somewhat hard for even himself to believe. After playing on the franchise tag in 2020, though, Simmons has proven that he is among the top safeties in the league.
"Since Day 1, I've always been a guy that's bet on myself and been really confident in what I can do and what I can bring to any defense," Simmons said. "To tell me as a senior going into the draft that five years in, that this would happen, it would've been tough to have believed you. What a journey it's been."
Simmons acknowledged that it hasn't been his journey alone, and he expressed his gratitude to a number of coaches and players who have impacted him in Denver over the last five years.
"It's really a testament to some adversity and some things I've gone through, but really also a testament to so many people in my life that have poured into me football-wise, guys like Coach Vic [Fangio] and Coach Ed [Donatell], [former DB Coach] Renaldo Hill has been tremendous," Simmons said. "There's so many coaches — M-Rob [former assistant coach Marcus Robertson] was here. Guys like T.J., Darian, 'Rob' [Bradley Roby], Aqib [Talib], Chris [Harris Jr.], Kareem [Jackson] — so many guys that I've had the privilege to just learn from and gather information from. It's just helped my game exponentially. It's just been like I said, so many people I can name from top to bottom that it's just been crazy. I'm just so thankful for all of them."
The next step for the All-Pro player will reach beyond the individual accolades that he's recorded through five seasons with the Broncos. Despite his personal success, he has yet to reach the playoffs — and the Broncos' best win total came when they won nine games during his rookie season.
Simmons said he understands the responsibility he now holds to lead the defense — and the entire locker room — forward on its path toward the postseason.
"I've been part of the low times here," Simmons said. "It's about time to be part of the highs. That's one of the reasons I'm so happy to be back, because I really feel a culture shift around the building, even just being back today. There's just that aura that you feel that things are changing for the better. That's not a negative on anything in the past, but things are changing for the better and I'm excited that [General Manager] George [Paton] and Vic and [President and CEO] Joe [Ellis] and everyone from the top down believes I'm a part of the better.
"It's going to be my job. The individual accolades will follow suit, but it's going to be my job, especially on the defensive side of the football, [to ensure] that we're competing at a high level each week to get back to what Broncos Country is used to — and that's winning and hosting playoff games."
In the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse, the banners recognizing the team's Ring of Famers blanket the north and south walls. At the east end, the team's Hall of Famers are paid tribute.
As Simmons continues his career with the Broncos and tries to earn a spot on the north, south — or even east — wall, perhaps he and the Broncos could accomplish something even greater.
If all goes to Simmons' plans, they'll add another installation to the west wall. There, above the team's name, hang three banners for the team's world championships.