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Why Justin Simmons' versatility is crucial to the future of Broncos' secondary

Henry Chisholm Avatar
August 6, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the defensive starters took the field for seven-on-seven passing drills on Sunday, their alignment was—for the most part—predictable. Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall were holding down the middle of the field, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby were split out wide, and Darian Stewart was defending the deep middle of the field.

There was one difference, though. Justin Simmons wasn’t lined up in his traditional safety spot. Instead, he was lined up across from Emmanuel Sanders in the slot.

Just a few plays in, Sanders ran a quick out route and Simmons jumped it, laying out at full extension for the interception. It took a near perfect play to hand Case Keenum his second interception of training camp. A few plays later, again lined up in the slot, Simmons batted a pass out of Demaryius Thomas’ hands for an incompletion.

Simmons’ role in Denver is growing. Now entering his third NFL season, the former third-round pick out of Boston College will be asked to bounce between various jobs, ranging from deep safety to enforcer in the box to slot cornerback.

“He’s going to play everywhere,” Harris Jr. said of Simmons on Sunday. “I think he’s going to play nickel. I think he’s going to play safety. He’s going to play everywhere on the field, so ‘J’ has to be comfortable with coming down and playing my role when I’m coming out, learning from me how to play the nickel and then going back to safety.”

Over the last two seasons, Simmons has solidified himself as one of the core pieces of the Broncos’ defense. Earlier in camp, head coach Vance Joseph even mentioned Simmons when asked about the leaders on the team. He has the athleticism and work ethic to etch his name among the league’s elite, but it’s his versatility that will make him a valuable tool for defensive coordinator Joe Woods this season.

In his second year at the helm of the Broncos’ defense, Woods faces a new challenge in the way he uses his secondary. Last season, the basic construction was simple; Simmons and Stewart typically filled the safety spots and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Harris locked down wide receivers outside. In nickel looks, Roby came on as a third cornerback, pushing Harris into the slot.

But Talib is now a Ram and Roby will take his place as an every-down cornerback, leaving the fifth defensive back job wide open.

“We have a good mix,” Harris said Sunday about the Broncos’ secondary depth. “We put ‘J’ out the slot, and I get to stay outside. We’ve put Roby in there. We’ve mixed around a lot. We’re just trying to figure out what’s the best group together and hopefully, once [Tramaine] Brock and [Marcus] Rios get back, it’ll make it a little bit more clear for us.”

Brock—who signed with the Broncos during free agency—is expected to be the third cornerback listed on the first depth chart of camp, when it’s released on Tuesday, making him the odds-on favorite for the nickel job. Bringing Brock to the field will give the Broncos a traditional 3-corner, 2-safety nickel look, but the Broncos could spend significant time in their big nickel package with a third safety coming on instead of a cornerback.

The versatility of the safeties will be the key to the Broncos’ big nickel. Simmons can play all over the field, and newcomer Su’a Cravens is a hybrid linebacker-safety. Woods has said Cravens is improving as a deep defender but already has a knack for playing in the box and lining up against running backs and tight ends in the passing game.

“We want to be able to move those guys around and create favorable matchups for us,” the defensive coordinator said.

“I think the NFL is always about matchups,” he added. “So whether we need to move Justin down to cover a tight end or move [Darian Stewart] 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.”

Over the next few weeks before the regular-season opener against Seattle, the Broncos defensive backs will try to regain the chemistry they had been building since Talib came to Denver.

“Me and ‘Lib (Talib) used to come out on the field—Bam! If he sees something, I see it,” Harris said. “We kind of talked to each other fast and then we can start playing ball.”

Luckily, the Broncos have some talent to make up for the loss of the two-time All-Pro, they just need to figure out how to put the pieces together. But whatever Woods comes up with will almost certainly feature the versatility of Simmons.

“He’s smart, he’s athletic, and this year I think he’s kind of coming into his own like Roby,” Harris said of Simmons. “I think he’s taking that next step. That’s that next step where you’re going to be an elite player.”

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