Denver Broncos' NFL free-agent signings 2021: Justin Simmons gets paid

After initially getting the franchise tag, Justin Simmons got his long-term contract at the end of the first week of free agency, making him the higest-paid safety in the league with a four-year, $61 million deal. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17 at 4 p.m. ET, meaning free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.

The Broncos finished their fifth consecutive playoff miss in 2020 with a fairly hefty list of needs, especially at cornerback, but they do have salary cap room to get started in filling those needs. They can be aggressive when they want to be at the opening bell of free agency and can scoop up some veteran players on some shorter one- and two-year deals as free agency moves into the second phase.

The Broncos originally gave safety Justin Simmons the franchise player designation, but were eventually able to give him a long-term deal.

Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Denver Broncos, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Kareem Jackson, safety

Jackson agreed to a one-year deal to return to the Broncos.

What it means: When the Broncos did not engage the option year in Jackson's deal before free agency opened -- the final year of a three-year contract signed in 2019 -- general manager George Paton said "the door is open'' for Jackson to return. And after seeing what the market held for him, Jackson has done just that. It gives the Broncos a high-end veteran player who had one of his best seasons for them in 2020.

What's the risk: There is minimal risk for the Broncos beyond the fact Jackson will turn 33 in April, so the concern for any defensive back heading into his 12th season is always going to be maintaining his level of play and staying healthy. But Jackson is also coming off a 2020 season when he played every defensive snap for the Broncos (1,083 snaps in all), his first 1,000-snap season since 2012. The Broncos will likely take a long look at the safety class in the draft given Jackson's ability to mentor and the team's need for some additional depth.

Kyle Fuller, cornerback

Kyle Fuller signed a one-year deal on Saturday.

What it means: The Broncos are far better in the secondary than when free agency opened as Fuller's arrival, in addition to re-signing Justin Simmons to a long-term deal as well as signing Ronald Darby. Fuller, like Darby, has started games at both left and right cornerback so in addition to Bryce Callahan, who has played both in the slot and outside in Vic Fangio's defense, the Broncos have plenty of versatility in their secondary to match up against the roster of quarterbacks in their division -- Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr. Given Fuller is one a one-year deal, it also doesn't preclude the Broncos from using a first-round pick on a cornerback at No. 9 if that is the way the board falls.

What's the risk: This is an exceedingly low-risk deal for the Broncos given Fuller's age -- he just turned 29 -- durability and level of play in his career. Fuller has never missed a game in his six-year career, had his only two seasons with at least 20 passes defensed with Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator and has never finished a season with fewer than 55 tackles. He checks every single box of what Fangio is looking for in a cornerback. They paid premium money to secure a premium player ($9 million guaranteed for the '21 season). That's how free agency is supposed to work.

Justin Simmons, safety

After initially getting the franchise tag, Simmons got his long-term contract at the end of the first week of free agency, making him the higest-paid safety in the league with a four-year, $61 million deal.

What it means: Broncos general manager George Paton meant what he said -- retaining the team's best free agents will be a key part of his team-building strategy. Justin Simmons meant what he said when he consistently answered he wanted to stay with the Broncos. Simmons has played every defensive snap in each of the past three seasons, has been named to a Pro Bowl, has been a second-team All Pro pick and he's been the Broncos' Walter Payton Man of the Year selection -- twice. If a person like that can't be re-signed the Broncos would have had some explaining to do with the other players inside their own locker room.

What's the risk: The risk is minimal other than the usual risk of injury any player faces no matter what his contract says. Simmons has been one of the most consistent, durable performers on the field, a leader in the locker room as well as in the community. He played on the franchise player tag in 2020 and didn't miss any work in 2020's training camp after signing the tender last July. He did his part to become the league's highest-paid safety with a contract that averages $15.25 million per year. That is the kind of deal it was going to take to retain him and the Broncos did their part as well. There is really no reason to believe both sides won't be happy about the way it has worked out.

Ronald Darby, cornerback

Darby agreed to a three-year deal with the Broncos worth $30 million.

What it means: The Broncos have no bigger need on the roster than at cornerback, where they have already released A.J. Bouye, a starter last season, and the two other cornerbacks who played the most -- Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia -- are returning from injury. Callahan just finished his second consecutive season on injured reserve and Ojemudia had knee surgery after the season. Darby, who logged over 1,000 snaps last season in Washington, is a walk-in player in the Broncos defense. He will be a fit in Fangio's scheme, which splices in plenty of combination coverages, where Darby's 1-on-1 skills can be used to move the help elsewhere. Darby has also started games at both left and right cornerback in his career, so he gives the Broncos some flexibility in how they approach things. They will continue to give the position long looks in the remainder of free agency as well as in the draft.

What's the risk: They spent some cash here with $19.5 million guaranteed and a deal that could be worth up to $30 million overall. They need Darby, who just turned 27 in January, to play at, or near, his peak. They also need the durability he showed in 2020 -- the first season he topped 600 snaps since 2016 -- to not be a fluke. He has been at his best in man-heavy schemes throughout his career, some that play more man coverages than Fangio does at times, but at his best the Broncos will have a reliable starter who has shown he has fully rebounded from a torn ACL in 2018.

Shelby Harris, defensive end

The Broncos and Shelby Harris have agreed to a deal that will keep the defensive lineman for three years and $27 million.

What it means: The deal is an early glimpse at how new general manager George Paton said he prefers to do business in free agency -- retain a team's key free agents. Harris fits well in Vic Fangio's defense and has been consistently productive over the past four seasons. In 2020 his seven passes batted down tied him for the league lead among defensive linemen with J.J. Watt. Harris did it in 11 games. He also blocked a field goal and had a two-sack game against the Buccaneers in Week 3. Harris' versatility -- he has played at both end and at nose tackle in some of the Broncos' specialty looks -- is a huge plus.

What's the risk: Harris, who will be in his seventh season in 2021 and will turn 30 in August, has been durable during his time with the Broncos. In fact, his bout with COVID-19 last season resulted in his first missed games with the team. Harris is a high-effort player -- he has always said he remembers how close he was to being out of of the league when was waived six times by three teams combined early in his career -- who appreciates his chance to play. In a year when the Broncos had already released Jurrell Casey, retaining Harris gives them flexibility moving toward the draft.

Mike Boone, running back

What it means: Outside the team's complex it may keep the team's faithful at a fever pitch as to why the Broncos won't sign Phillip Lindsay to a multi-year deal (Lindsay is a restricted free agent Broncos simply tendered as a right-of-first refusal, or the lowest tender). But inside the team's walls this has far more to do with special teams than what Boone could add on offense. Broncos general manager George Paton certainly knows Boone well, having seen Boone for the last three seasons with the Vikings. While Boone had just 71 carries in those three seasons combined, he played at least 52% of the special teams snaps in two of those seasons. And the Broncos certainly need any and all help on special teams.

What's the risk: It is a fairly low-risk deal overall with $2.6 million in guarantees overall and he fills a need on special teams where the Broncos obviously have plenty. There will be some issues with optics on the outside, perhaps in drive time.