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ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 24: Justin Simmons #31 of the Denver Broncos celebrates his interception during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on November 24, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
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History suggests that paying Justin Simmons big money is a gamble

(Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The Broncos are potentially headed towards their biggest and most-active free agency since 2014.

For many, the re-signing of safety Justin Simmons is the priority. Simmons was a third-round pick in 2016, and by his second season, he became a mainstay in the Broncos starting lineup. The safety is coming off his best season in which he was voted second-team All-Pro.

Simmons is expected to command top dollar. When a player has shown himself to be among the league’s best, it’s easy to fall into the “keep him at all costs” mindset.

When looking into the past, however, the Broncos have had mixed results when it comes to rewarding their best draft picks with top contracts.

Elvis Dumervil was a fourth-round pick out of Louisville for the Broncos in the 2006. In his first four seasons, Dumervil racked up 43.0 sacks (including 17.0 in 2009) and he was recognized as a premier pass rusher in the NFL. He was well deserving of an extension when his contract expired after the 2009 season.

Prior to the 2010 season, Dumervil signed a new deal with the Broncos. The contract was one of the largest for a pass rusher in the NFL. Dumervil’s track record of success justified the top money.

Just after signing his contract, Dumervill would tear his pectoral muscle in practice and would miss the entire 2010 season. He would bounce back with 9.5 sacks in 2011 and 11.5 in 2012. Following the 2012 season, Dumervil would leave the Broncos after the infamous and puzzling “Fax-Gate” fiasco.

Dumervil had two solid seasons after his big contract, but neither matched the success of his first four years. Combine that with missing the entire 2010 season due to injury and the Broncos did not get the return on Dumervil that they had hoped for when they paid him. This is evident in that they wanted to restructure his deal following the 2012 season.

Ryan Clady might be the best left tackle in Broncos history. Gary Zimmerman is in the Hall of Fame, but Clady played more seasons for the Broncos. A former first-round pick out of Boise State, Clady was a day one starter and instantly one of the best in the league at his position.

Clady was a standout player during some down years for the Broncos. The Broncos rewarded Clady in 2013 by signing him to a contract extension that made him one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the league.

In Week 2 of the 2013 season Clady would suffer a Lisfranc injury and miss the remainder of the season, including the playoffs and Super Bowl 48. Clady would return in 2014 and have a very good season, which would end with him being selected to his fourth Pro Bowl.

During an OTA practice leading into the 2015 season, Clady would tear his ACL and miss the entire 2015 season, including the playoffs and Super Bowl 50. In the 2016 offseason, the Broncos traded Clady to the Jets, ending his time in Denver.

Clady is one of the best players in Broncos history. He belongs in the Ring of Fame. It’s unfortunate he was unable to play in two Super Bowls because of injuries. The Broncos only saw Clady play for one season after signing him to an extension. Fair or not, the Broncos did not get their return on the big contract they paid Clady.

Tim Tebow throwing to Demaryius Thomas to beat the Steelers in the 2011 Divisional Playoff Game is one of the most-memorable plays in Broncos history. A first-round pick out of Georgia Tech, Thomas was brought in to replace Brandon Marshall. After battling injuries during his 2010 rookie season, Thomas started to emerge in 2011 as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

When Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, Thomas was outstanding. From 2012-14, Thomas turned in the best three-year run of any wide receiver in Broncos history. He played his best game in the 2013 AFC Championship Game, helping the Broncos return to the Super Bowl.

Just before training camp began in 2015, Thomas and the Broncos agreed upon an extension making him one of the highest-paid wide receivers in NFL history. That 2015 season the Broncos offense took a backseat to the defense and the team won Super Bowl 50.

Thomas never matched the game-changing effectiveness he displayed in his first five seasons. It’s hard to blame Thomas for the drop off. Manning declined in 2015 and then Thomas was catching passes from Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler.

The Broncos offense has been one of the worst in the NFL since 2015. Thomas was not the reason. The reason was the Broncos inability to find a starting quarterback. Thomas was still solid from 2015-18, but without a consistent quarterback play, the Broncos weren’t able to receive their return on paying big money to a wide receiver.

Von Miller’s timing for needing a new contract could not have been better. Miller won Super Bowl 50 and was a free agent following that game. Despite what appeared to be contentious negotiations, Miller signed an extension with the Broncos in 2016 making him one of the highest-paid defensive players in NFL history.

Since signing the contract, Miller has continued to be one of the best players in the NFL. Yes, 2019 was not his best year, but Vic Fangio is getting a pass, so I think Miller should too. The Broncos have gotten their return on the Miller contract. Opposing teams have had to continually focus their entire game plan on not letting Miller get hot.

Dumervil, Clady, Thomas and Miller were all the very best at their position when they signed extensions with the Broncos. All four had multiple years of elite play when they entered negotiations. Most important, the decision to re-sign all four was considered a slam dunk by fans and media. To this day, nobody blames the Broncos for these signings.

Justin Simmons is a different case.

The Broncos have been high on Simmons since they drafted him in 2016. They liked him so much; they sent T.J. Ward packing in 2017 so they could make Simmons the starter.

Simmons had a solid season in 2017 and leveled off in 2018. The arrival of Vic Fangio gave Simmons the boost he needed. In 2019, Simmons turned in by far his best season and was named second-team All-Pro.

Simmons is on the verge of becoming an elite safety. The other four were firmly established as elite.

This is not meant as a slight to Simmons. Rather, it is a compliment. Organizations should re-sign players based on what they think they can do not for what they’ve done. As we saw with Dumervil, Clady and Thomas, there was no way to know at the time, their best years were prior to the extensions.

Simmons is looking like a player who is only going to get better. He’s smart, technically sound, durable and well liked. Simmons has a coach that knows how to utilize him. He needs to build off what he started in 2019. His best days appear to be ahead of him.

Anytime a team signs a player to a big contract, the team is rolling the dice. Players can be injured, not fit into schemes or tail off for any number of reasons. It is hard to get full value out of a big contract.

The Broncos gave big money to Dumervil, Clady and Thomas and did not get their return on investment. They have received their return on Miller, but he’s a Hall of Famer.

When those contracts don’t work out, many times it’s not the players fault. Clady and Dumervil didn’t purposely injure themselves and Thomas didn’t know the quarterback situation would collapse. Regardless of the reason, the Broncos and Simmons will need to have an understanding on how they plan to use Simmons as a key component for the team’s success.

If Simmons re-signs for big money, expectations will be high. The Broncos signing their most exciting and talented players to contract extensions is reason for fans to celebrate. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it’s not the ending everybody had hoped for.