Why the Denver Broncos made Justin Simmons the NFL's highest-paid safety

A leader on the field and in the community, Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons doesn't think he's played his "best ball yet." AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- History swayed ever so slightly over Justin Simmons' shoulder this month.

Banners, far larger than life, adorned with the images of Denver Broncos' Ring of Fame members as well as the franchise's representatives in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, hang from the walls of the team's fieldhouse. And as the team and Simmons formally celebrated his four-year, $61 million deal -- the biggest ever handed out to a safety -- those banners gently waved back in the internal breeze.

John Elway, Terrell Davis, Floyd Little, Paul Smith, Louis Wright, Randy Gradishar, Shannon Sharpe, are just some of the Broncos greats through the decades. But there may be no position -- from inception to John Lynch's impending gold jacket -- that represents the franchise like safety. Check the list from Goose Gonsoulin to Billy Thompson to Dennis Smith to Hall of Famer Steve Atwater to Lynch.

"Anyone that knows Broncos football knows the lineage of safeties and the play of the safeties that are in this program and that have been a part of this program," Simmons said. "That's been expected of me since Day 1. By no means am I close to reaching that goal, but it's something that I strive for all the time."

George Paton's biggest move in his earliest days as Broncos general manager has been to re-sign a player he didn't draft. But Paton said, almost from his first day inside the team's suburban Denver complex, re-signing Simmons was "a priority."

Paton believes Simmons is the best safety in the NFL, with a rare combination of on-field ability, off-field leadership and in-community investment.

"It's everything else he brings to the table within the locker room and out in the community," Paton said. "It's hard to find a really good football player, but it's really hard to find someone that's out in the community like Justin, and [someone] who's a leader in the locker room. That's why it was a priority since the day I arrived to get Justin locked up."

Simmons also represents the kind of player every defensive coordinator considers a must-have in today's NFL. Atwater and Lynch could, and often did, excel in coverage, but their signature plays were on the kinds of hits that cause others to reconsider their vocation. Those players largely faced offenses whose extra player in the pass pattern was a fullback or a tight end running across parts of the field those players didn't usually tread. The game has changed.

"[Now] there are three wide receivers on the field a good bit of the time in the NFL," said Broncos coach Vic Fangio. "Sometimes when it's not three wide receivers on the field, there's a second tight end who really is a receiver in a tight end's body. To have safeties that can play the deep part of the field is important, but also having safeties that when we want to bring them down and cover one of those three wide receivers or a really good tight end, that's part of the job description too now. It happens more often. The game is wide open and played, not on a bigger field, per se, but the ball spreads around the field more than it used to."

Or as Paton put it: "It's a space and cover league. No one can play in space and cover as good as Justin at safety in the NFL."

It's a significant investment for the Broncos with the biggest contract, in terms of average per year ($15.25 million), anyone has given a safety. But Simmons, who played on the franchise player tag last season, has been a Pro Bowl selection as well as a second-team All Pro in back-to-back seasons when the Broncos didn't make the playoffs.

He has played every defensive snap in each of the last three seasons, has been a leading voice in the community on social justice issues and has twice been named as the Broncos' finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his work in the community. He has won the Darrent Williams Good Guy award three times from the Denver chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. He can play some football, too.

"It's one thing to find really good players, which Justin is," Fangio said. "That's hard enough, but then when you're able to quarterback your secondary and help quarterback your defense, now you've become a multiplier. You're helping other guys become better. Those players are hard to find. It was never a doubt in my mind that we didn't want him back and he wouldn't be here."

Simmons, who was the Broncos' third-round pick in 2016, has called the new deal "the beginning." He's had three consecutive 90-tackle seasons and his five interceptions in 2020 were a career-best.

This month, the Broncos have also added cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency, exercised linebacker Von Miller's option and re-signed defensive end Shelby Harris. On paper, the Broncos should be able to put Simmons and others in better position to force more turnovers and carve out impact plays if good health is along for the ride.

"We're looking for 20 better plays [for Simmons]," Fangio said. "You don't know when they are going to happen. [They] may involve him getting a few more picks and may involve him making a critical tackle over the course of the season."

"There's no added pressure in that regard because it's been that way for me since Day 1 and since I got here as third-round draft pick," Simmons said. "I'm just excited to keep going. As Coach Vic said ... and I 100% agree -- I don't think I've played my best ball yet. There's so much more for me to learn and so much more for me to take in and incorporate on the field."