With the exception of veteran defensive leader Darian Stewart, the Denver Broncos’ core of safeties is one of the most youthful position groups on the team.
No other safety on the roster has more than two years of professional experience. The crowded group of young players gives the team plenty of options in the defensive backfield, something they will likely experiment with.
Alongside Stewart, Justin Simmons has shown potential as a more-than-capable strong safety. The acquisition of Su’a Cravens gives defensive coordinator Joe Woods more flexibility as a hybrid-type player. Will Parks, Jamal Carter and Dymonte Thomas all figure to play into schemes as well. Here’s a breakdown of the Broncos’ options at safety in 2018.
Entering his ninth season in the NFL, Darian Stewart is far and away the most experienced player in the position group. After Aqib Talib’s departure, he has also taken on more leadership responsibilities this offseason, too.
Chris Harris said earlier in the offseason that he and Stewart will be the ones directing communication in the secondary. Given the overall youth in the secondary, their leadership becomes that much more important. Stewart will surely see most snaps at free safety this season, a position he’s played since 2014 in Baltimore.
Stewart posted an impressive statistical campaign last season, tying his career high with three interceptions and notching over 50 solo tackles for the third time in his career. Stewart’s demeanor does not match that past outspoken defensive backs T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib, but his presence in the secondary will be a welcome sight in 2018.
When the Broncos cut T.J. Ward prior to last season, they put their full trust in Justin Simmons, a player with one year of NFL experience. Last season, Simmons proved them right, starting 13 games and displaying the versatility to play in various packages.
At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Simmons is strong enough and physical enough to tackle in the box and play strong safety – a position where he’ll likely spend most of his time. His long frame and speed also allows him to excel in deep pass-coverage.
The third-year player has recorded two interceptions in each of his two NFL seasons, a testament to his range in the secondary. As a full-time starter last year, Simmons also recorded 68 combined tackles and five pass deflections. He’s missed three games in each season, but if Simmons can avoid injury in his third year, he will likely continue to prove his value to the Broncos.
Acquired via trade with the Washington Redskins in March, Su’a Cravens brings an edge to the defense that the Broncos were missing last year. After an impressive rookie campaign, Cravens retired from football prior to 2017 due to concussion concerns. He made the decision to return to football, and the Broncos dealt draft picks to acquire him.
Cravens figures to fill the role as a dime-backer, a position Ward spent a lot of time at in Denver. This linebacker-safety hybrid plays in the box and is trusted to defend against the run and pass in certain sub-packages. Given his experience playing both linebacker and safety, Cravens fits the mold that the Broncos are looking for.
What’s more, the Broncos’ coaching staff is impressed with the versatility that Cravens brings to the defense.
“He’s a unique player,” Defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. “You can see the natural instincts when he’s in the box. When he’s in the box, he fits the run like a linebacker. Right now, you can see that. You can see it’s easy for him. We’re just really spending a lot of time teaching him how to play off the ball. Playing the deep safety position. But I think he’s going to really help us in terms of what we’re able to do with our sub-packages. I think there’s a few things actually we can do that we couldn’t do last year.”
Cravens said he sees himself as a strong safety, but he’s willing to play anywhere on the field. His flexibility on the field makes him a welcome addition to the backfield.
Parks might be the player most affected by Cravens’ addition. In many cases, he found himself playing in sub-packages last season, a role Cravens is more fit to fill. Still, Parks has shown his ability to help the defense in his two years in Denver.
After a solid rookie season, though, he did not take a huge leap forward in his second year, something that was likely considered in the acquisition of Cravens. More bodies in the safeties unit is sure to increase the competition, something that can only improve the unit as a whole. But for now, Parks will have to earn his reps entering 2018.
2017 undrafted free agents Jamal Carter and Dymonte Thomas both broke into the league as rookies last season. Carter broke camp on the 53-man roster and played in all 16 games while Thomas made his way up to the team later in the season and appeared in three contests. Both could find their way on the field in backup situations this season.