The Denver Broncos safety group was one of the team’s strengths in 2021.
Denver ranked eighth in the NFL in passing yards allowed with 214.2 a game per ESPN stats. A strong showing by the secondary last season led to an improvement from the 2020 team that gave up 237.9 yards in the air per contest.
The 2021 Broncos secondary was anchored by Justin Simmons’ stellar play and the return of the reliable Kareem Jackson. The two continued to form one of the league’s better pairings. Rookie fifth-round selection Caden Sterns showed promise as a sub-package player and also played well when given the chance to start.
The Mile High Sports Broncos team continues our 2021 positional group debrief with safeties.
Justin Simmons justifies his contract with stellar play
General manager George Paton identified Simmons as a core player and the former Boston College standout was awarded a 4-year, $61 million deal after his phenomenal 2020 season. One of the highest-paid players in the league, Simmons has unreal expectations to perform.
Top ’22 Cap Hit by Position
QB: Matt Ryan, $48.6M
RB: Zeke Elliott, $18.2M
WR: DeAndre Hopkins, $25M
TE: George Kittle, $16M
OL: Laremy Tunsil, $26.1M
DL: Chris Jones, $29.4M
LB: TJ Watt, $31.1M
CB: Marshon Lattimore, $27.4M
S: Justin Simmons, $18.8M
S/T: Justin Tucker, $5.9M
— Spotrac (@spotrac) March 2, 2022
He was certainly one of the team’s bright spots two years ago, in 2020. Simmons recorded five interceptions and earned a 77.4 Pro Football Focus grade that season.
One argument could be made No. 31 started the season slower than expected. However, Simmons found his groove and made big plays after big play.
Justin Simmons placed the ball on Demaryius Thomas’ number 88 after making a diving INT 🙌
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 12, 2021
Last year, Simmons snagged another five interceptions while starting all 17 games. Overall, he improved in his sixth season as opposing quarterbacks only produced a passer rating of 66 and threw three touchdowns — a 102.2 rating and seven touchdowns in 2020 — according to Pro Football Reference.
Simmons earned a strong 74.8 PFF grade and second-team All-Pro recognition in 2021 according to the Associated Press. With high expectations, Simmons did not disappoint. He remains a mainstay for the Broncos defense for years to come.
Kareem Jackson remained a steady influence on young Broncos defense
Head coach Vic Fangio relies on steady safeties for his defense and knew Jackson was reliable. Jackson returned to the Broncos after testing free agency last offseason and showed to be a bargain. Paton released Jackson in a cap-saving move before the 2021 offseason began. However, Paton and Jackson ultimately came together on a 1-year, $5 million deal to bring him back.
From the early part of the season, Jackson showed each week why the team wanted him back.
Jackson’s physical style provides the defense with a unique intensity. No other Broncos player plays with the reckless abandon Jackson does.
The former cornerback turned safety has been a heat-seeking missile every game he suited up for the Broncos.
Kareem Jackson still has it. Saves what could've been a massive play. pic.twitter.com/KHbFcaD9ec
— Joey Richards (@JRDrafts) September 21, 2021
According to Pro Football Reference, Jackson was credited with 88 tackles and one interception.
Trevor Lawrence throws his 4th INT of the season.
Kareem Jackson has it.pic.twitter.com/kAwvTrTmWD
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 19, 2021
After three straight seasons earning a PFF grade of 80.0, Jackson’s play dipped some. In 2021, Jackson earned a PFF grade of 52, the lowest since his rookie campaign in 2010. For reference, Jackson graded out with a score of 80.4 in 2020 and 82.3 in 2019. But last year, out of 94 gradable safeties, Jackson was 87th.
Playing in 15 of 17 games, Jackson gave up a 113 passer rating and 77.8 completion percentage according to Pro Football Reference. However, Jackson’s influence on the Broncos was not solely due to turnovers or tackles. His football IQ was outstanding and wherever he lands, they will get a phenomenal player next season.
Now a free agent, Jackson is likely to move on and is projected to earn a 1-year, $3.5 million fully guaranteed deal per PFF. Due to the presence of the rookie Sterns, a return to Denver is very unlikely.
Caden Sterns shows promise and is the long-term plan for safety
The former Texas Longhorn was able to get more takeaways than he gave up scores as a rookie. Pro Football Reference credited Sterns with only one touchdown surrendered in 2021. The rookie picked off two passes in his NFL debut.
An aspect of his game that came as a surprise was Sterns’ ability to blitz from the safety position. Using his 4.4 speed, Sterns recorded two sacks, both against the elusive Lamar Jackson.
— Will Baizer (@WillBaizer) October 3, 2021
The fifth-round pick was selected after fellow rookie safety Jamar Johnson. Yet, Sterns earned playing time as the primary nickel safety while also collecting two starts.
Dak getting picked off by Caden Sterns in a perfectly executed 1-Cross call (weak safety cuts cross, Dime replaces him as robber to give middle help against field side #1 and #2).@CoachVass is gonna break this all down in detail tomorrow in his stream so keep an eye out for it. pic.twitter.com/F2vOclxDvs
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) November 9, 2021
The athletic Sterns showed enough in his rookie season to have first dibs at the starting safety position in Jackson’s presumed absence next season. Sterns showed enough ball skills in his first year to provide Broncos country with an exciting option next to All-Pro Simmons.
P.J. Locke and Jamar Johnson
Johnson missed time and was a non-factor. However, the former Indiana Hoosier will likely get a chance to earn significant playing time as the team’s third safety in 2022.
Mostly contributing on special teams, Locke earned a few regular season defensive snaps. However, Locke was impressive in the 2021 training camp and will likely get more. He looks like a nickel defender as the team tries to find the right mix at safety next season. Like Johnson, Locke will have an opportunity to battle for a role in training camp.
Overall, the unit was just solid from top to bottom. Although there was a lack of impact in creating turnovers from Jackson, Sterns and Simmons created 7 of the team’s 13 total interceptions.
Sterns and Simmons will be counted on to man the top two spots next season while both Johnson and Locke fill out the room.
Overall Safety Position Group Grade: B