Player Profile: Justin Simmons has forged his path and found his calling

Justin Simmons in last year's training camp. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.
Justin Simmons in last year's training camp. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.

The Denver Broncos lost their leader and the face of their franchise two weeks ago when Von Miller was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. It’s time for the Broncos to find a new face, and his name is Justin Simmons.

Since being drafted in 2016, Simmons has made himself beloved to Broncos Country for his on-the-field and off-the-field work. Last season he was selected to his first Pro Bowl and was nominated as Denver’s representative for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

With the Broncos seemingly falling apart and directionless, they’ll turn to the guy who Pro Football Focus dubbed the best safety in the league to point them back to their winning ways.

Leaving The Shadows

Simmons grew up in Stuart, Florida, and played safety at Martin County High School. He immediately felt the pressure of trying to live up to his father, who himself was a legendary safety for his time as a Martin County Tiger.  

However, Simmons didn’t let it get to him and forged his own path. His senior year, he was named All-Area Defensive Player of the Year and accepted an offer to play football at Boston College.

In his freshman year at BC, Simmons played in all 12 games, starting in seven. 

Before his sophomore year, he suffered a freak eye injury that caused him to temporarily lose his starting spot until midway through the season. He got hit in the eye and ended up fracturing a bone inside his eye socket.

His breakout season came in his junior year when he started in all 13 games, both as a free safety and a cornerback. He had a team-leading 76 tackles and finished with two interceptions.

As a senior, he was the team’s starting free safety for all 12 games. Simmons ended the season with five interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and the third most tackles at 67.

For his accomplishments, Simmons was named Second Team All-Atlantic Coast Conference.

Simmons attended the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine and recorded the best 20-yard shuttle time since 2006 with a time of 3.85 seconds. Most experts and scouts labeled Simmons as the fourth-best free safety and the sixth-best safety overall.  

In the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos drafted him with the 98th overall pick.

Simmons and the Broncos agreed on a four-year, $3.06 million contract with a signing bonus of $645,420.

NFL Career

In his rookie season, he played as the backup to Darian Stewart but started in three games.  

He finished with modest numbers but shocked everyone when he leaped over the offensive line and blocked an extra point attempt by the New Orleans Saints kicker Will Lutz in week 10. The ball was recovered by Will Parks and returned for an 84-yard game-winning 2-point conversion in the last two minutes.

Going into his sophomore season, Simmons was poised to be TJ Ward’s backup. However, Simmons won the starting job, and Ward was released during the final roster cuts.  

In 2019, he led the Broncos with four interceptions, was tied for second with 93 tackles, and was named second-team All-Pro.

By the time Simmons had finished his rookie contract, the Broncos knew they couldn’t let him get away. They decided to place their franchise tag on him on March 13, 2020 and signed him to a one-year tender worth $11.441 million. 

Simmons started all 16 games in the 2020 season, recorded a career-high five interceptions, and was selected for his first Pro Bowl. 

The Broncos decided to use their franchise tag on him again, but this time they secured a long-term contract signing him to a four-year, $61 million extension on March 19, 2021. During the press conference, new general manager George Paton said, “You’re the best safety in the league and an even better person.” 

Finding His Calling

Simmons was born to Kimberly, a white woman, and Victor, a black man. Not everyone in their families supported their union.  

According to Simmons, the divide made him feel like he wasn’t white nor black enough, saying, “I always felt out of place.” 

Almost immediately before being drafted, he married his high school sweetheart, Taryn, a white woman. As a young married couple, their experiences together mirrored what his parents had dealt with as a biracial couple.

Simmons’ rookie season took place in the same season Colin Kaepernick started doing his anthem kneeling protests. Although skeptical at first and believing he was wrong for disrespecting the flag, Simmons decided to research and better understand why Kaepernick was doing it.

The more he researched, the more passionate he became about racial injustice. Being a rookie, Simmons didn’t feel comfortable vocalizing his beliefs and kept the conversations between him and his teammates.

Following the 2019 season, Simmons had become a rising star in the NFL, and people were starting to take notice.

After watching the video of George Floyd being suffocated to death in the offseason before 2020 training camp, Simmons knew he could no longer keep these conversations behind closed doors.

He attended and led protests in his hometown and Denver with his teammates, helped create and implement the team’s Inspire Change program, and signed the NFL Players Coalition’s Letter to Congress calling for the bill to end qualified immunity. He also lobbied for the Colorado Senate Bill 20-217, which mandates body cameras, public reporting on policing, and reigning in the use of deadly force by officers.

Simmons had finally found his voice and was no longer afraid to use it.

For his advocacy efforts, Simmons has been nominated as the Walter Payton Man of the Year twice in 2019 and 2020.

The shoes Miller has left behind are arguably unfillable. Nevertheless, now Simmons will take on that challenge with his showmanship on the field and his mission off.

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