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A minor change could make a major difference in the Broncos' secondary

Andre Simone Avatar
August 9, 2018

The Denver Broncos first depth chart might “mean nothing” as head coach Vance Joseph explained, but there was one key development in this newest version that should make people happy—Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart are finally going to play the positions that suit them best. 

With T.J. Ward getting cut at the tail end of the offseason last year, Simmons was the man tasked to fill in for him, and as such, was put in as the strong safety.

However, as the season progressed, it was abundantly clear that Simmons was too good in coverage to be placed in the strong safety spot that Ward, a far more limited athlete, was playing.  

Truth be told, Simmons became much more than just a strong safety early into the 2017 season, reaching his apex in Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins where he was the Broncos’ go-to option in nickel with Aqib Talib suspended and Brendan Langley showing he wasn’t ready for the NFL a week prior against the Oakland Raiders.

That versatility hasn’t been lost on his coaches and teammates which is exactly why Simmons, who remains a reliable tackler and can play in the box when needed, is much better off being free.

“It came up last year in Miami,” recalled Simmons “l played the whole game at nickel. There were a couple of snaps against, I think, Oakland. It really depends on whether the coaching staff wants to get other guys looks there or give me some looks there. But either way, I’ll be ready for it, if that’s what it comes to.”

Stewart isn’t exactly lacking in versatility, either, as Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods explained.

“He’s played both for us. He’s played the strong end, free safety position. He’s played the dive position, but really all of those guys. Justin, Stew, Will [Parks], even with Su’a [Cravens] now, again, we’re just starting with Su’a, but we want to be able to move those guys around and create favorable matchups for us.”

Versatility is without a doubt the name of the game, and to have two safeties like that in the modern NFL is crucial.

Denver now has two competent deep safeties who can both play in the box or be flexed out in the slot and trusted to cover tight ends.

That said, something just didn’t feel right last year as Stewart lost a half step in coverage and didn’t possess the type of range you’d want from a deep safety, while Simmons’ athleticism and cover skills seemed waisted playing as the strong. Making it at times frustrating to see the two constantly listed in spots that didn’t suit them anymore during 2017.

That mistake’s now been remedied already in early August, as the safety position should play a big part in the Broncos defense in 2018 as we could see lots more three-safety sets utilized in sub packages, while the third cornerback still gets figured out.

Simmons might be one of the most important players on Denver’s defense due to his ability to play all over the field, which, in conjunction with Stewart’s versatility, should make them a formidable combination, especially now that they’re both in their rightful starting roles.

While Stewart roaming the shallow middle of the field is ideal, as he can also play up close to the line on the edge and be an added asset defending the run.

“I think the NFL is always about matchups,” explained Woods. “Whether we need to move Justin down to cover a tight end or move Stew down in case you want to play the run, we definitely have the flexibility to do that with those guys while they’re all out on the field at the same time. We’ll definitely have that as part of our game plan moving forward.”

Stewart and Simmons being established in their “new” roles is only part of the equation, as Parks seems ready to break out in 2018, and is quite versatile himself. Add that to Cravens, who can play all over the field and could even be a de facto linebacker, and the Broncos the option of four safeties at once on the field.

On his end, Stewart isn’t just a mentor to the budding group of young safeties, he still has instincts for days and is tough as nails. Two qualities that’ll allow him to flourish closer to the line while he can still be a versatile chess piece in the secondary.

Cutting Ward a year ago wasn’t easy, especially in favor of an unproven entity like Simmons. A year later, that move looks pretty good, as No. 31 is a key part of the secondary and has allowed Stewart to transition with age into a role that suits him much better.

While the first depth chart might not mean anything and two starters still starting in slightly different spots might seem minor, putting Simmons and Stewart in their rightful spots should make all the difference for the Broncos secondary in 2018. 

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