Now, as the Broncos' disappointing season winds down, Simmons is clearly one of the team’s key building blocks moving forward.
“We want 10 more guys like Justin Simmons," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph on Friday. “Obviously the player, he has a bright future as a football player, but as a person he’s A-plus."
“He’s impone of the best football players on this team, hands down, he really is," special-teams coordinator Brock Olivo said. “You could plug him in anywhere -- offense, defense or special teams -- and he would do a fine job. He’s very much missed."
This past summer Simmons, the Broncos’ third-round pick in the 2016 draft, was the guy with plenty of potential, so much so that the Broncos felt they could release safety T.J. Ward in early September. It was an eyebrow-raising move both in the locker room and among the team's faithful, given that Ward had been named to two Pro Bowls in his three seasons in Denver and was part of a veteran secondary that helped the defense finish No. 1 in pass defense in both 2015 and 2016.
Suddenly Simmons was a 24-year-old second-year player with plenty of responsibility and expectations.
"That was the hardest part of my football career, just because he was like, like I said, an older brother to me," Simmons said.
Simmons was moved to injured reserve earlier this month due to a fluke ankle injury he suffered in a celebration after Brandon Marshall had both forced and recovered a fumble in the Broncos’ win over the New York Jets. But in between his promotion to the starting lineup and his injury, he collected 63 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and showed impressive versatility -- he has lined up as a slot cornerback at times this season with a heavy dose of special-teams play as well. The Broncos hope his performance was a preview of more to come.
They see a long-term starter in him with the kind of work ethic that can help set the tempo for a team that will undergo plenty of change in the locker room after its second consecutive playoff miss.
“(I want) to be even better," Simmons said. “I think there were definitely great leaps made from my rookie year to this season, though still not even close to satisfied with where I’m at athletically, physically and mentally even. There are still so many steps that I can take."
Simmons has also shown a maturity off the field. He has been recognized as one of the team’s most active players in the community and Friday was named the recipient of the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award, given by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America and named for the Broncos’ defensive back who was killed in a drive-by shooting early on New Year’s Day 2007.
Simmons said Friday that his ankle won’t "be an issue at all" when he begins training in the offseason.
“All in all I think I’ve had an OK year," Simmons said. “I would have liked to have had a better year, in my personal opinion I think I could have had a better year. ... I’m expecting bigger, better things for myself."