The Denver Broncos were blessed by the football gods in 2015, when the unheralded "value" free agent signing, Darian Stewart, seemingly came out of nowhere to help take the No Fly Zone to another level.
Denver signed Stewart to a two-year contract worth up to $5.25 million back in 2015. He was signed to start next to T.J. Ward and together, they served as one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.
Following their Super Bowl 50 Championship, the Broncos entered the 2016 offseason relatively flush at the safety position, notwithstanding the departure of David Bruton, who had signed in Washington. The Broncos had both starting safeties under contract, poised to return in 2016.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1767581-broncos-draft-rewind-paxt... Ward was 29 years old, while Stewart was 27. Ward was getting a little long in the tooth, but was still arguably in his prime, while Stewart was sitting pretty, but heading into a contract year.
GM John Elway evaluated the safety group and decided that the team needed a better long-term prospect than Shiloh Keo behind Ward and Stewart. Heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, I honestly expected the Broncos to take a safety at some point.
In the first round, Elway had the opportunity to take West Virginia's Karl Joseph and Florida's Keanu Neal, both of whom heard their names called early, but Denver's front office czar passed. In the second, Elway continued to let the safeties drop off the board, choosing instead to take defensive end Adam Gotsis with the last pick in the second round.
Denver went into the Draft with two third round picks, but Elway utilized their original third-rounder to package a trade with Seattle to move up and take quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first. However, after the free agent losses Denver suffered in the aftermath of Super Bowl 50, they still had their compensatory third-rounder.
The Broncos loved Simmons' unique combination of size, physicality and football IQ. Checking in at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Simmons had the length and wherewithal to conceivably serve as Denver's "matchup safety".
For the previous two years, David Bruton had served in that role primarily and his departure created a vacuum. The Broncos needed a safety who could cover and match up with opposing tight ends one-on-one and neither Ward nor Stewart were particularly well-suited to the task. Simmons was the solution.
With Shiloh Keo staring down a two-game suspension to start the season for a DUI charge in Idaho, the Broncos placed Simmons third on the safety depth chart. He would be the next guy out on the field, especially when the team ran their "big nickel" sub-package.
Simmons did not disappoint in camp, nor in preseason action. The team felt confident enough in their third round pick to part ways with Keo just two weeks into the season, before he had even finished serving his suspension.
The Broncos also had Will Parks, whom they had selected in the sixth round just months prior — but Parks' evaluation is for another day. Elway double-dipped in the safety pool, and it ended up serving the Broncos well.
Simmons ended up appearing in 13 games as a rookie, with three starts. In 296 defensive snaps, he totaled 24 tackles (20 solo), one sack, two interceptions and a game-saving blocked extra point in New Orleans, which Parks returned for a two-point score.
It took Simmons a few games to get his feet underneath him and he did battle the injury bug for a couple of weeks. But when he was on the field, the vaunted Broncos passing defense did not take a step backward. And defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did not shy away from matching Simmons up one-on-one with some of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league.
With his rookie season under his belt, Simmons is poised to spread his wings even more on Denver's defense. And the team is really going to need him on special teams, with Kayvon Webster having moved on to Los Angeles. Simmons' athletic ability is off the charts and his football smarts are as good as it gets for a player entering his second year.
Simmons' biggest hurdle as a rookie was acclimating to the speed of the NFL game and the savvy of pro quarterbacks. The latter issue will still take some getting used to and further education.
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Simmons will have to cross swords with Philip Rivers, Derek Carr and Alex Smith in the Division, to say nothing of the likes of Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck — all of whom are on Denver's 2017 schedule. Simmons will take his lumps.
But what Simmons' rookie campaign showed me is that he is remarkably quick on the uptake. With T.J. Ward now on the wrong side of 30 and entering a contract year, the Broncos will give Simmons every opportunity to make an impact on defense.
Simmons is more of the prototypical free safety. Projecting into the future — and assuming Ward won't be around beyond 2017 — I see Simmons as Denver's free safety, while Darian Stewart, who signed a four-year extension this past season, will serve as the strong, or box safety.
I liked the Justin Simmons pick when the Broncos made it and almost one year removed from the selection, he has done nothing but bolster that confidence. I've tagged Simmons as one of Denver's young role players poised to break out in 2017.
We'll see if he proves me right.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.