Given how little national notoriety the Denver Broncos have had over the last few seasons, it comes as no surprise that some of the players fans consider to be undoubted stars are not viewed that way from a national perspective. Simply put, not many people were tuning in to watch the Broncos with the team being the unfortunate combination of both bad and boring for the past six years.
The lack of eyeballs on Sunday tuning in to watch the Broncos has to be the explanation for Pro Football Focus listing All-Pro safety Justin Simmons as the team’s most underrated player entering the 2022 season.
Simmons is one of the very best safeties in the game. He posted a career-best 90.7 PFF grade in 2019 that really set the bar for how good he could be, and though he hasn’t quite repeated that season, he has been consistently impressive since. Simmons is an excellent free safety with the range to make plays in coverage, but he also impacts the run game far more than most at the position. He is averaging more than 25 defensive stops across the past three seasons, far more than a typical free safety.
Under former head coach Vic Fangio, the Broncos played a good bit of pre-snap two-high safety shells that would rotate into coverages after the snap. While year-to-year the type of coverages the Broncos rotated into would change based on injury and personnel, one thing remained true: the Denver defense played two to three times as much Cover 6 or quarter-quarter-half coverage as the league average while playing some of the lowest rates of true Cover 2 or Cover 3 of any team in the NFL.
The two-high pre-snap safety shell is an ideal fit for a smart and lengthy safety like Simmons. While not the behemoth of a true box safety more prototypical of a team utilizing more single-high safety coverages and not the true blazing single-high safety such as Earl Thomas during his prime, Simmons is good at doing nearly everything.
Single high? Two high? Over the slot? In the box? Simmons’ ability to wear many hats is ideal for today’s NFL with defenses mostly being influenced and springing off Fangio and his key tenants.
Will new Broncos' defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero utilize Simmons as Fangio did in his match-quarters-heavy defensive scheme? That remains to be seen, but given how the players have indicated that the defensive scheme should be mostly the same outside of switching some verbiage, a dramatic shift philosophically would be rather shocking. This should be good news for Simmons this season.
Further good news for Simmons? The Broncos should have (on paper at least) massively improved their pass rush which was ranked as one of the single worst pass-rushing defenses in all of football last season.
Losing Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and playing seventh-round picks and undrafted free agents on the edge will do that to a defense. Also, Simmons should have a chance to make far more plays on the football this season as the Broncos will likely field an above-average offense for the first time since 2014 with Russell Wilson in the fold.
With opponents being forced to play more catch-up and feeling compelled to score points, the risky throws for Simmons to pounce on should increase. However, is Simmons truly the Broncos’ most underrated player?
Here are three players Broncos fans would likely consider fitting the description more accurately.
Melvin Gordon | RB
Perhaps from a national perspective but in Broncos Country, Simmons is not underrated. Considered the face of the franchise prior to the Wilson acquisition, Simmons is known in Broncos Country for his off-the-field philanthropy just as well as for his on-the-field prowess. More or less, Simmons is viewed as a star in Denver and is hard to consider underrated.
From the perspective of Broncos Country, three names that deserve the “underrated” label are running back Melvin Gordon, cornerback Ronald Darby, and linebacker Josey Jewell. Gordon has had somewhat of a mixed back welcome in Broncos Country since re-signing after the draft.
From coming in and usurping carries from hometown hero and Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay and taking away carries from shiny new toy Javonte Williams, Gordon’s ability has been underrated for the most part in Denver. He does need to work on his fumbles, but expect regression to the norm this season for him in not only putting the ball on the turf, but also the other team jumping on fumbles.
Ronald Darby | CB
Darby is one of the better No. 2 cornerbacks in the NFL when he is on the field. The big issue with Darby is his injury history and availability.
After suffering a hamstring injury Week 1 last year, it took Darby a bit to get healthy and back to form. He returned from injury and Darby played solid in spite of Denver’s lack of pass rush in front of him and an anemic offense on the other side of the ball. If Darby can stay healthy, he and Patrick Surtain II could contend for one of the better one-two punches at corner in the NFL.
Josey Jewell | LB
Last but not least, the Broncos prioritized Jewell this offseason, re-signing the former Hawkeye on a two-year, $11 million contract. He isn't flashy as a linebacker and he isn’t massive and lengthy, nor is he a sideline-to-sideline blazer.
But what Jewell is as a linebacker is what matters most in today’s NFL: he's hardly ever in the wrong spot on the field, he is the signal-caller on the defensive side of the ball, he covers his drop zones well, makes tackles when offensive players come within his sphere of reach, and processes information both pre and post-snap as well as any linebacker in the NFL.
There is a reason the Broncos quickly moved to retain Jewell this offseason and let both Kenny Young (who recently signed with the Las Vegas Raiders) and Alexander Johnson walk. What Jewell brings to the defense is integral as a structural backbone.
While possessing incredible athleticism or size at the linebacker position is good if one has it, it's also massively overrated and likely one of the reasons why the stack linebacker position has busted with first-round draft choices over the last half-decade more than any other position: athleticism is secondary to processing and instincts, the latter of which Jewell possess at an extremely high level.
With Wilson now calling Denver home, the Broncos’ time in football purgatory has officially come to a close. This is a good thing for Broncos Country and the players on the team alike as such obvious great players like Simmons will likely quickly move from 'underrated' to 'household name' as the season progresses.
For those who suffered the last half-decade of Broncos football, Simmons is far from an unknown or underrated player. Instead, for the diehards in Broncos Country, perhaps consider the likes of Gordon, Darby, and Jewell as the most underrated players currently on the roster.
While none are superstar players, all three are exceedingly above average players at their position and should be appreciated for what they will bring to this Broncos’ team in 2022.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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