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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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Should the Broncos Pay or Pass in 2020 – Safety Justin Simmons?

(Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The Broncos have a lot of interesting decisions to make this offseason in regards to free agency. Before they decide on which ones to target from other teams, Denver must first look at its own players who are set to hit the open market.

Heading into the offseason, the Broncos have 14 players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2020. At the end-of-season press conference, Broncos general manager John Elway said the Broncos are going to wait a month before they start evaluating their own players.

“That gives us more time to do it the right way. Rather than doing it on a personal side, because the coaches get connected with (players). I think you get a better objective view when you get away and you’re able to go back and look at it individually,” Elway said.

In the meantime, let’s take a tour through the list of players the Broncos need to make a decision about. During the next few weeks, I’ll take an in-depth look at Denver’s pending free agents, answering a simple question: Should the Broncos pay to keep them or take a pass, letting them head into free agency.

Next up…

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JUSTIN SIMMONS
Safety

The 2016 NFL Draft wasn’t the best for the Broncos. However, they hit a home run when they selected safety Justin Simmons out of Boston College in the third round.

I had Simmons graded as a late first-round pick, yet the Broncos were able to pick him up in the third round. Their first-round pick that year was quarterback Paxton Lynch and their second-round pick was defensive end Adam Gotsis. Those two players worked out at various levels, Lynch being a clear bust and Gotsis just being okay. Had they taken Simmons over both of them, he would have been seen as a fantastic find.

Simmons provided great value for the Broncos as he was set to learn behind the likes of T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. He proved to be a great student and learned a lot from both of those Pro Bowl players.

When the team decided to move on from Ward in 2017, Simmons stepped into a larger role. He went from playing 296 snaps as a rookie to playing 737 snaps in his second season – playing in 13 games each of his first two pro seasons.

After that, Simmons played more than 1,000 snaps each of the next two years in 2018 and 2019. He was good in 2018, finishing the year with 70 tackles, three interceptions and four passes defensed. That was nothing compared to what he did in 2019 under Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.

During his time as a defensive coordinator, Fangio had made stars out the safeties working in his defense. I felt that when Fangio took over, Simmons would be the biggest beneficiary.

He posted mostly career-best numbers working in Fangio’s defense last year. Simmons finished the 2019 with 64 tackles, four interceptions and a whopping 15 passes defensed. It was just the tip of the iceberg in my opinion.

As Simmons gets more used to working in Fangio’s defense, he should improve and post even better numbers. Simmons had his best season during his contract year which is good for him, but it’s good for the Broncos if he does even more going forward.

Should the Broncos pay or pass? Let’s take a look.

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Positives

Simmons is one of the smartest players on the Broncos roster. He is rarely fooled by a play fake or a pump fake from a quarterback. Simmons does a good job of watching a quarterback’s eyes and making a quick decision on where the ball is going.

He’s a rangy player with a nose for the football. Simmons can play deep centerfield for the defense yet still find his way to the ball. In addition to playing deep, Simmons can play close to the line of scrimmage and help in run support.

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Negatives

There are times when Simmons lacks communication (usually with cornerback Chris Harris Jr.) and a big play will happen as a result. That could have been a product of learning a new system, but we saw that a few times during the 2019 season.

Simmons is a good tackler, but he’s not a thumper. That means he will have to drag larger players down rather than meet them in the hole and knock them back. He does get them down, but some extra yards might be picked up because Simmons is not known as a big hitter.

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The Market

It wasn’t that long ago when safeties were not getting paid huge money in the NFL. The position used to be looked over by some in the league, but with offensive football, specifically the passing game, taking over, the defense had to respond with better safety play. Those safeties who can cover and tackle suddenly became incredibly in demand.

The top 10 safeties in the NFL make between $9 million to $14 million annually. That number has increased recently, and it is likely to go up with a new deal for Simmons.

The market changed – and improved for Simmons – when Bears safety Eddie Jackson received a four-year, $58 million contract extension with $22 million in full guarantees. That makes Jackson the highest-paid safety in terms of annual average salary at $14.6 million.

The starting point for Simmons is going to be around that number, if not besting it for an annual average salary. If the Broncos don’t get around $14 million, then a long-term deal is unlikely to get done.

The Broncos could use the franchise tag on Simmons this offseason. Simmons may not even stay away from offseason workouts if that happens, which is often the case. The franchise tag would fully guarantee Simmons around $12 million for one year. That’s an acceptable price, but the most important part of the franchise tag is the extra time it gives you.

With the franchise tag in place on Simmons, the two sides would have until mid-July to get a new contract done. When dealing with likely record-setting number for safeties, the Broncos might need that extra time to work something out with the talented veteran.

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The Verdict

This is an easy decision. It’s an expensive one, but an easy one for the Broncos. Simmons has worked out exactly the way you want a player to in the NFL. He’s good on the field and capable of playing football at a high level. In addition to that, Simmons is great with the media, a strong leader in the locker room and he’s good in the community.

I recommend the Broncos pay Simmons.

The message from the team is clear. Simmons is not going anywhere this offseason. Yes, the Broncos might have to place the franchise tag on Simmons, but that seems unlikely to sour the veteran safety on signing a long-term deal with the Broncos.

He was a great draft pick and a perfect fit for the Fangio defense. Simmons needs to get a huge contract from the Broncos and perhaps even be the highest-paid safety in the NFL.

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