The first quarter of Justin Simmons' 2020 campaign was inconsistent — to say the least — but the Denver Broncos' franchise safety has seemed to turn the ship around of late. Although Simmons' play in the Broncos' last four games might not be on the same All-Pro level from 2019, he's definitely bounced back from a lackluster start to the season.
On Wednesday, head coach Vic Fangio was complimentary of Simmons while acknowledging that the safety is still getting comfortable in the scheme. Fangio was asked whether he's seen Simmons take his play to a different level this season.
“A little bit," Fangio said. "He played very well last year so to take it to another, way bigger level would be hard. He’s definitely improved and is feeling more comfortable in what we’re doing. Obviously, he’s playing really good for us.”
Simmons is currently ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 graded safety and while he's definitely improved of late, it's a bit head-scratching that in what amounts to his second year in Fangio's scheme, the fifth-year player is still settling into his role within the defense. Early on this season, as Simmons struggled to be in position in coverage and had multiple tackling snafus, analysts like Mile High Huddle's Erick Trickel opined that Fangio appeared to be using the safety differently.
Last year, Simmons was the center-fielding safety who was able to go sideline-to-sideline and utilize his unique combination of instincts, speed, ball skills, and physicality to earn second-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press. In 2020, whether due to a change in the scheme, or an amended role, he's been caught out of position much more frequently and at times, especially early in the season, seemed to be pressing or swimming.
It might be due to the play of safety partner Kareem Jackson, who seems to have slowed down some in his second year as a Bronco. At 33 years old, Jackson has looked his age in coverage, though he's been just as physical and impactful when asked to play in the box and close to the line of scrimmage.
Father Time remains undefeated but Jackson is hanging on. And his play has also improved of late. The embodiment of both Jackson's and Simmons' initial performance this year came in Week 4 on the Sam Darnold play in which the New Jork Jets' QB rumbled 40-plus yards to pay-dirt, making both Broncos' safeties look like Keystone Cops.
Suffice to say, that's not a play Simmons whiffs on in 2019. Over the past two games, Simmons has totaled 10 combined tackles with two interceptions and three pass break-ups. In the six games prior, he posted just one interception and two pass break-ups combined.
Simmons has improved but with half of the season in the books, he hasn't hammered home to the Broncos the abject need to get him re-signed long-term. With Garett Bolles emerging as one of the top left tackles in the league in a contract year, Simmons will have some competition when it comes to vying for the Broncos' salary cap dollars and/or franchise-tag designation.
If forced to decide on allocating dollars between those two players today, odds are the Broncos would throw in with Bolles. He's been the more consistent player in 2020 but in fairness, he also plays a foundational position when it comes to roster building.
In the first quarter of this season, Simmons played at a replacement level. The second quarter saw him return closer to the form he was in last year, which led to the Broncos franchise-tagging him to the tune of $11.441 million fully guaranteed.
Simmons believes he's worth more than that per season on a multi-year deal but if he wants to garner such an extension that would make him a top-paid safety in the league, whether it be from the Broncos, or an outside team, he's going to have to finish these remaining games on the same trajectory of the past two weeks.
While we can only speculate on the exact reasons Simmons and the Broncos were unable to come to terms on a long-term extension before the franchise-tag deadline, it's safe to assume that the team would have been more comfortable giving him top-of-the-market safety money if he had more than one elite season (not just in a contract year) under his belt.
We don't know what 2021 holds salary-cap or free-agency-wise for the Broncos but Simmons still very much plays a factor in the team's ideal future. He brings so much to the table, not only as a player, but as a locker room leader and also a community maven, it would be tragic to lose him.
But Simmons has to finish the 2020 campaign with such authority that it could leave no doubt in the minds of John Elway and the Broncos' brass. Considering his track record with the team, eight additional games should be enough of a sample size to do just that. If Simmons has got it in him.
Which I believe he does.