The Denver Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason — or at least plays .500 or better football.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the safety position.
Starters: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson
The Broncos have two quality starters at the safety position for the 2019 season. One player might have the best season of his career in a contract year, while getting the biggest “bump” from playing under coach Vic Fangio. The other player, while listed as a cornerback on the official roster, has the ability to be a fine safety or corner for the Broncos defense in 2019.
Justin Simmons is one of the smartest players on the roster. He’s not just book smart, but Simmons has a high football intelligence that helps him diagnose plays quickly as they unfold in front of him. A third-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Simmons has worked hard to move up the depth chart to his starting position that he’s had for a couple of years.
The best word to describe Simmons is dependable. He is a reliable player you can count on to be in the right position to make a play, and he’s a sound tackler who won’t let ball-carriers get away.
Simmons played every defensive snap for the Broncos in 2018 and that kind of outlook points at similar volume numbers going forward. He’s had some lapses in coverage from time to time, and that is the part of his game that could be cleaned up the most by Fangio and the new coaching staff.
If Simmons becomes a better coverage player then he could dominate with a well-rounded game. Simmons is coachable and very willing to listen in order to improve his game. The Broncos made the decision to get rid of T.J. Ward years ago because they believed in Simmons as an up-and-coming player. Now in a contract year, Simmons has a chance to play the best football of his career and then break the bank in free agency.
Kareem Jackson is listed as a cornerback on the official roster, but I am going to write about him here because I think he’ll mostly play safety for the Broncos in 2019. Jackson was one of the best players in college football at Alabama and that’s why the Texans made him a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft. He played at a high level for years in Houston, lining up at multiple positions in the secondary and now he brings that versatile game to Denver.
Jackson is as physical as a linebacker, but he’s in a cornerback’s body. He’s a well-built prospect who can excel when playing close to the line of scrimmage. Jackson is not afraid of contact, and in fact, he welcomes the challenge from running backs he meets in the hole (remember the hit on Phillip Lindsay when the Broncos played the Texans last year?). Jackson knows how to position himself for the biggest hit and can jar the ball away from opponents grasp from time to time (six forced fumbles in his career).
Not only is Jackson dominant as a run-defender but he’s also quite capable in coverage. He could start outside at cornerback for the Broncos in 2019 opposite of Chris Harris Jr. That certainly shows how he can bring those coverage skills to the safety position. Opponents aren’t going to be able to isolate Jackson and exploit him in coverage because he should be able to run with any target he’s tasked with defending. He was one of the best free agents out there and the Broncos did a great job adding him with a three-year, $33 million contract earlier this year.
Reserves: Will Parks, Dymonte Thomas, Su’a Cravens, Jamal Carter, Shamarko Thomas, Trey Marshall
The reserve safeties all have varying degrees of skill sets, but this is an intriguing group to be sure. From this group of players, the Broncos have a young player who could shine in a contract year, a player who has produced with little opportunity, a former highly-touted draft pick the team traded for, an undrafted player who is one of the hardest hitters on the team, a special teams ace and a young safety who plays with the desired amount of aggression.
Will Parks could probably start for a few teams in the NFL, but he’s going to be a backup once again for the Broncos in 2019. A sixth-round pick of the Broncos in the 2016 NFL Draft, Parks is in the final year of his rookie contract. His game has really developed from his college career at Arizona to his first few seasons with the Broncos.
In fact, Parks had a tale of two seasons just last year.
In 2018, Parks did not play well for the first month or so of the season. Then, in the game against the Steelers, Parks made a huge touchdown-saving hit on tight end Xavier Grimble. After that play, Parks seemed to gain a ton of confidence and seemingly turned his season around.
Not only did he play with more confidence, but Parks made better decisions and seemed more comfortable on the field. Early in the season, Parks was out of position and sometimes seemed confused right before the snap. After that Steelers game, Parks was more sure of himself and did a good job of staying with the player he was tasked with covering. He’s a backup for the Broncos again this year, but if Jackson goes to play corner and Parks has to play free safety, then the Broncos will still get quality play from the position. Parks is one of the most important reserve players on the roster.
Dymonte Thomas has done a good job nearly anytime he’s gotten a chance to play defensive snaps for the Broncos. Undrafted out of Michigan in 2017, Thomas has appeared in 14 games during the last two years for the Broncos. During that time, he has played 101 snaps and has 12 tackles, eight assists, 1.0 sack, one fumble recovery, one interception and one pass defensed.
Thomas does a good job of following a quarterback’s eyes when he plays deep safety. He has excellent size and does not shy away from contact when working near the line of scrimmage. Thomas played slot corner in addition to safety in college for the Wolverines, which clearly shows off how athletic he is. The new staff should notice immediately that Thomas is smart, hard-working and efficient with his movement. With a fresh start and a new coaching staff, we’ll see if Thomas can prove that he needs more playing time.
Su’a Cravens was supposed to be better than this. A second-round pick out of USC in the 2016 NFL Draft, Cravens was graded as a first-round talent by some in the scouting community. The Redskins played him in 11 games as a rookie and Cravens had some flashes here and there. His rookie season was cut short by a concussion that lingered into the next offseason. Cravens actually considered retirement and did not play in the 2017 season.
The Broncos traded for him in the spring of 2018, looking to give Cravens a fresh start. Finally healthy and happy to get out of Washington, Cravens spent a lot of his time with the Broncos banged up early on. A knee injury meant he had to begin the 2018 season on injured reserve, but Cravens was one player the Broncos designated to return. He played in five games for the Broncos, compiling 11 tackles and six assists. However, Cravens was also a healthy scratch for the team down the stretch and his status with the new coaching staff is unknown.
Cravens has the ability and the skill set to be dominant in coverage or as a run-defender. If he’s healthy and focused, then he should have no problem impressing Fangio and his staff. However, Cravens is not a lock to the make the 53-man roster and will have to fight for any chance he gets to make the team in 2019.
Jamal Carter is one of the hardest hitters on the Broncos roster. Picked up as an undrafted free agent out of Miami in 2017, Carter did see action with the team as a rookie. He was a reserve in all 16 games, but only played 81 snaps on defense, finishing with eight tackles, two assists and one pass defensed. Carter loves to hit and is always looking to make a jarring blow. He’s fast in a straight line and can get to a play in a hurry. Carter does have speed to cover deep, but he struggles to get his hips turned in time on some routes. His main asset is playing in the box and bringing the wood as a run-defender. Carter missed all of the 2018 season due to a hamstring injury but is healthy now and trying to impress the new coaching staff.
Shamarko Thomas can play special teams, but that might not be enough to get him a spot on the 53-man roster. He’s on his fifth team in his pro career, but he has been with the Broncos for about a year. A fourth-round pick of the Steelers in the 2013 NFL Draft, Thomas packs a punch at 215 pounds. Thomas is fast and physical but he can bite on play fakes too often and get out of position. He’s known as a tough player, both physically and mentally, and Thomas can be a leader in the locker room. Thomas is on the roster bubble from day one, but his physical skill set, mindset and special-teams ability might earn him a spot on the 53-man roster.
Trey Marshall was added by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Florida State in 2018. He was a two-year starter with the Seminoles and known to be an aggressive player. Marshall works hard to make a play and puts in the proper amount of work in the weight room and the film room. He’s not the fastest player at the safety position, but Marshall wraps up quickly and makes great effort to get to the ball-carrier.
Fangio is going to have this defense playing at a high level in 2019 and a large part of that success should come from the safety position. The Broncos defense features players who are incredibly versatile, and both Simmons and Jackson can be moved around the formation.
The Broncos back end is the last line of defense, but it’s a strong one.
Simmons is just entering his prime as a player and could be better than ever under Fangio’s guidance. His intelligence is the hallmark of his game and under Fangio, we could see Simmons make a Pro Bowl for the first time in his career.
Jackson has not been a Pro Bowl player in nine seasons as a pro. He’s going to play a hybrid safety/cornerback position for the Broncos in 2019. While he’s incredibly capable of being a quality cornerback, Jackson should fit well at the safety position.
The reserve safeties feature young players just looking for a larger opportunity. If they need to go to this group during the regular season, they should be able to get quality play from whatever reserves make the 53-man roster.