The Denver Broncos have a ton of talent at the safety position, including arguably the best safety in all of football.
It’s undeniably one of the best position groups on the roster, which is sure to make it one of the most contentious groups come training camp.
As these players compete for playing time, who’s most likely to emerge victorious, and who’s most likely to miss out on being named to the final roster? That’s what we’ll attempt to answer here.
Rather than ranking players based on how good they’ve been in the past, we’ll be ranking players based on where we project them to fall on the depth chart in the future. So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at what safeties are most likely to play a starring role for the Denver Broncos in 2022.
1. Justin Simmons
There isn’t much one can say about Justin Simmons that hasn’t already been said.
He’s a tremendously valuable leader for the entire Broncos roster, especially the defense, and is arguably the most talented player on the entire roster. There’s also a very strong case to be made for Simmons as the best safety in all of football.
He’s a rare athlete that also happens to be one of the most intelligent players playing the position. Whereas most of the contenders for the title of ‘best safety in football’ either thrive near the ball, or back deep as a center-fielder, Simmons is the idyllic modern safety, capable of disrupting the offense whether he’s lined up inside the box or 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.
He’s a no-brainer at the No. 1 spot and leaves little to discuss.
2. Caden Sterns
Stop sleeping on Caden Sterns immediately. It’s time Broncos Country starts giving Sterns his flowers as a potential defensive building block of the future.
It’s easy to overlook Sterns as a nice fifth-round pick who had an impressive rookie campaign while operating in a limited role, and expect nothing more from him this season, but doing so would be foolish. Sterns has superstar potential, and seems to be realizing that potential now in Denver.
Just a few years ago, Sterns was being hyped up as a top-10 pick at safety, which is remarkably difficult to do. The heavily lauded Kyle Hamilton, widely viewed as the best player in the 2022 NFL Draft class, just went 14th, to evidence that point.
Unfortunately, Sterns then was unable to replicate that same level of play in subsequent seasons, partly as the result of being entrenched in such a toxic environment, and his draft stock quickly plummetted. He became a boom-or-bust prospect, that could either re-capture his former glory or soon be out of the league.
Fortunately for Denver, that gamble is trending towards paying off in a major way, as it seems Sterns has righted the ship and is back to being the player that earned rave reviews early in college. Throughout last season, coaches and key defensive players raved to media figures behind the scenes of how astounding Sterns’ football intelligence was, and how tantalizing his upside is. Now, it’s time for him to take the next step towards that star so many believe he can be.
3. Kareem Jackson
Ever since signing him as part of 2019’s offseason haul, Kareem Jackson has been a remarkable player and defensive leader for the Denver Broncos. However, it does feel like it’s time for him to pass the reigns of his starring role to a younger star.
Last year was pretty hit-or-miss for Jackson, and it felt like we saw more coverage lapses from him in 2021 than we saw in 2019 and 2020 combined.
That said, don’t view this as Jackson’s memorial service. He still projects to be a very meaningful contributor with a sizable defensive role, especially in Ejiro Evero’s defense.
It’s been widely reported that Evero wants his defense to live in the dime package, which makes sense as an adaption to the modern trends of the NFL, however, relying on that lighter package can leave teams vulnerable to the run. As a result, it will be critical to have a ‘dimebacker’ who can fulfill many of the responsibilities you would place on a defensive back while being a talented enough run defender so that you aren’t leaving yourself vulnerable to the ground game.
Doesn’t that sound like the perfect job for Kareem Jackson? A downhill, physical enforcer who has the ability to drop in coverage and play some corner?
It sounds perfect to analyst. Jackson and Sterns will likely swap 2021 responsibilities this offseason, and the defense should be better off for it.
4. P.J. Locke
For several offseasons, P.J. Locke was one of the Fangio staff’s favorite players thanks to his lauded work ethic and intelligence. As a result, Locke slowly climbed the depth chart, from undrafted afterthought to valued special teams contributor and trusted backup.
As Fangio’s staff was swept out, and Hackett’s staff entered the building, it initially felt like Locke was being sent back to square one, with the odds stacked against him. However, after observing his utilization at the Broncos’ OTAs and minicamp practices, it feels like Locke is still a major part of the new staff’s plans — as he should be.
Unfortunately for Locke, it will be virtually impossible for him to supplant any of the names ahead of him this season, but he should still see the field more in 2022 than he has in any other season, and Jackson’s advanced age leaves the door cracked for Locke to earn a larger role on defense.
5. Delarrin Turner-Yell
Finding much playing time on defense for Delarrin Turner-Yell in this loaded safety room might be difficult for Nathaniel Hackett and Ejiro Evero to figure out, but his skill set should translate to special teams immediately.
Turner-Yell is an intelligent, instinctive, fiery and physical safety, who is at his best when attacking downhill and sorting through traffic. He has a natural feel for where the ball is, and when he fires at a target, he almost always connects and brings his man down.
That sounds like the perfect skill set for someone who can help upgrade the Broncos’ punt and kick coverage units.
However, Turner-Yell showed lapses in his discipline while at Oklahoma, sometimes being over-aggressive, over-pursuing, taking a bad angle, and allowing a big play. This tendency also shows up in coverage, and he’ll need some time to refine his skills in that aspect of the game. Nonetheless, his special teams prowess should earn him a roster spot and some playing time as a rookie.
6. J.R. Reed
The Broncos did just sign J.R. Reed this offseason, but it’s difficult to see how he fits in with the limited roster spots and Denver didn’t invest enough in him to guarantee a roster spot. They’re only paying Reed $895,000, and there’s no dead cap hit for cutting him.
Meanwhile, they’ve just invested in Turner-Yell, and Locke has been lighting it up at OTAs, as he has for years now.
It feels like this regime brought Reed in to be a special teams ace, but Locke has already proven to be a high-end special teams player in past seasons, while Turner-Yell has the traits that make it easy to project him as a major special teams contributor early in his career.
7. Jamar Johnson
If you were to do this same exercise immediately after the 2021 NFL Draft, Jamar Johnson would have found himself ranked third in a fairly shallow safety room, with plenty of opportunities to expand his role.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way for Johnson. Injuries limited him throughout last year’s offseason programs, and Sterns quickly gained the leg-up on the depth chart. Locke also proved to be a more reliable special teamer and tackler than Johnson, and quickly, he found himself buried with little-to-no playing time.
There was some hope he could rebound this season from the rough start, but seeing the team add Turner-Yell and Reed, and bring back Jackson, feels like a vote of no-confidence.
Johnson will probably be released sometime in August, but his pre-draft pedigree was good enough that he’ll likely get a new opportunity with a second team soon after.