Broncos safety position in limbo; Jackson and Sterns in play

Jan 2, 2022; Inglewood, California, USA; Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson (22) breaks up a pass in the end zone for Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) in the second half the game at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos safety room was one of the team’s biggest strengths in 2021 (as we discussed in our MHS 2021 safety positional debrief). Justin Simmons was phenomenal following a big contract extension signed in the offseason.

Kareem Jackson was solid once again while rookie Caden Sterns showed he’s ready for a bigger role. The Broncos played in the nickel package quite a bit, featuring their top three safeties often. With a change at defensive play-caller, the Broncos will likely run even more nickel and dime packages than last year.

Adding a solid third safety is a must for the Broncos before the season starts.

Jackson’s contract expired at the end of the season, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The assumption by most would be the veteran would move on to a new spot in 2022 and Sterns would take over.

The door may not be closed on a return just yet. Jackon stated that he and the Broncos have had discussions recently when interviewed by Willie McGinest of the NFL Network.

A reunion with Jackson would provide the Broncos with another year of solid safety tandem play.

But is that the best move for the Broncos?

If Jackson returns, his presence would eat into Stern’s playing time. Sterns, a fifth-round selection last year, used his athleticism to make several impressive plays last season. In his rookie campaign Sterns recorded two interceptions and two sacks. That was more sacks as Jackson has had in the last four years and the same total of interceptions as the past two seasons.

There is no question the Broncos believe in Sterns, or Jackson would be on the roster before free agency hit.

However, the need for quality players in the secondary to face the high-powered offenses in the AFC could encourage Paton to add good players in any way possible. Essentially, the Broncos need at least one or two more starting-caliber defensive backs to account for their sub-package use and the inevitable injury bug that faces every team each year.

If adding another good player to the safety room is the route Paton chooses, he must think hard about whether Jackson is the best option.

Other potential impact additions at safety

Broncos fans have called for another free agent safety, Tyrann Mathieu is the top of the safety group remaining in free agency.

Mathieu offers another premium name added to a formidable secondary. With Simmons and Patrick Surtain II, Mathieu would add another top-end play-maker.

Mathieu just completed a three-year $42 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. With some slick salary-cap maneuvering, the Broncos could add the versatile Mathieu. Spotrac has a market value of around three years and $44,605,000, an average salary of approximately $14.8 million. It’s safe to assume Mathieu would need to come down off that number to become a Bronco. Would he take less to get some revenge against his old team in Kansas City?

The Broncos also could pivot in a different direction. Filling the third safety void with the versatile Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is only 26-years-old and has been a steady contributor for several seasons.

The former first-round pick would likely be a much cheaper option. Last season, Peppers tore his ACL and missed the final 11 games of the season.

Assuming Peppers would take a “prove it” deal, he would be a low-risk, high-reward addition. The former New York Giant and Cleveland Brown starter also have special teams ability, including experience as a punt returner. His ability to help in the third phase along with his knack to play near the line of scrimmage makes Peppers a potential Swiss Army knife for new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.

Another name to keep in mind is Terrell Edmunds (25). Edmunds, a starter for Pittsburgh Steelers over the last few seasons, produced 89 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 1 sack in 2021.

He allowed opposing quarterbacks just a 56.6 percent completion percentage in 2021, per Pro Football Reference. When targeted, Edmunds allowed quarterbacks to compile a putrid 63.7 passer rating when targeting ’21. There is still some upside with Edmunds if the Broncos want to invest in a young ascending player.

Broncos in house options

The Broncos could stay in-house with options Jamar Johnson and P.J. Locke to fill out the safety room.

Johnson was a ball-hawk for Indiana Hoosier would likely get the first chance to slide next to Sterns and Simmons if no additions are made.

Locke is primarily a special teams player who must show a lot in training camp to earn valuable snaps next season.

In the end, the Broncos need more pieces on the backend of their defense. Points will be a premium and defensive stops are a must if Denver wants to compete with Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert in a loaded AFC West. Bringing in another safety would be wise to help match up with tight ends and provide run support as Denver looks to move towards running a lighter box.

Adding Jackson, Mathieu, Peppers, Edmonds or another name would be wise. Bringing in another starting-caliber defensive back could be a hedge in case Sterns is not ready for the spotlight. This team is in a championship window and should look at adding as many playmakers as possible.

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