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Broncos 2022 Training Camp Preview: Safeties

Jul 9, 2022, 3:32 PM | Updated: 3:42 pm

You never truly know what you will get from a position in the NFL. After all, injuries derail the best laid-plans.

But there is no position group on the team that has more clarity than the Broncos’ safety corps, with two time-tested starters, three recent draft picks and another young safety who appears ready for a level jump.

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Starters: Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson

You know what you’re getting with Simmons — and, according to a survey of NFL personnel executives coaches and players compiled by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, what you’re getting is the best safety in football.

As one AFC defensive coach told Fowler, “If you’re judging safety play by who’s the most complete and checks the most boxes, he’s that guy for me.”

Simmons’ range and ability to track and adjust to passes is probably the best in the league. And while Simmons doesn’t have the thump of Jackson, he’s an asset against the run because of his keen ability to diagnose plays as they develop.

It didn’t take long for new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to discover what he had in Simmons.

“He’s a smart player, and we’ll start with that,” Evero said during minicamp. “Smart players are my favorite type of players. He’s smart, he’s athletic, he has the experience now, and he’s a leader. He can say things with confidence and people are going to believe it because they know he’s leading them in the right direction.”

It helps having a safety partner as seasoned as Jackson. After some early-season communications snafus last year, the two got back on track.

“Smart guys,” Evero said. “You put more on their shoulders because you know they can handle it, not only in terms of getting it done themselves, but communicating it to everybody else.”

While Simmons’ place and role is clear, the situation is slightly murkier for Jackson.

First, it’s worth noting his evolving contract situation. In March 2021, the Broncos declined to pick up his option, making him a free agent. They subsequently re-signed him to a one-year contract, yielding a net savings of $5 million. Denver let him test the market again this spring, and he came back on a one-year, $2-million deal with. $1.3 million guaranteed.

Denver’s initial decisions show a willingness to live without Jackson. You don’t let a player test the market unless you’ve decided that it is possible to carry on with someone else in the lineup.

But in each of the last two offseasons, Jackson immediately returned to the first team.

Truth is, the Broncos still need Jackson. They need his guided-missile surges into the box. They need his been-there, done-that experience. And in particular, they need his vocal, veteran leadership. His trash-talking with opposing offensive players — and even coach Nathaniel Hackett — spiced up OTAs.

But they also need him to turn back the clock a bit. According to the data compiled by Pro Football Focus, Jackson missed 17.1 percent of his tackle opportunities last year, the highest rate of his career. He also allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 111.8 rating when targeting him, the highest rating at his expense since 2017.

It’s possible that the energized environment fostered by Broncos coaches could make Jackson’s 13th season into a renaissance year. Certainly, he’s connected with his new bosses.

“I love me some Kareem,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “I love his intensity and competitiveness. … He plays the game like it should be, and I love that about him. I love chirping back and forth with him.

“It just brings that energy and excitement to practice because that’s real football.”

Intangibles like that should make Jackson valuable for at least one more year.

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Backups: Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, Jamar Johnson, J.R. Reed, Delarrin Turner-Yell

Sterns’ rookie performance was a revelation. Few defensive backs around the league were more efficient than the fifth-round pick.

Last year, Sterns was one of just seven defensive backs with at least 2 interceptions, 2 sacks and 5 passes defensed. The other six all played at least 500 snaps — a group that included names such as Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer, Tampa Bay’s Antoine Winfield Jr., Arizona’s Budda Baker and Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Sterns got there in just 311 snaps. Most of his work came as a sixth defensive back, working as a hybrid safety/slot cornerback, depending on the formation presented by the opposing offense. A similar role could be in the cards for Sterns — and with the expected emphasis on sub packages, it could mean that he plays 25-30 snaps a game.

Locke is evidence of how patience in a prospect can pay dividends. When asked to play, he’s delivered steady, heady work. And when he stepped in for Jackson during OTAs on the first team, he was a playmaker, ending one OTA with an end-zone, touchdown-preventing deflection of a Russell Wilson attempt to Courtland Sutton.

“We were joking about how I looked at the quarterback and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m wide open,’ and then all of a sudden, I see a flash of white come across my eyes and it’s P.J. making a play,” Sutton said.

Locke is an intelligent player; he quickly incorporates teaching into his game. The result is a player who plays faster than his timed speed, and who appears capable of — at minimum — becoming a good No. 3 safety.

“P.J. is great,” Simmons said after Locke worked alongside him during OTAs.

“Obviously, there’s no replacing a Kareem or replacing other players,” Simmons added a moment later, “but it was easy-flow communication with him. You can see his instincts kind of just take over when he’s out there playing. He’s always been a special player and I’m glad.

“Publicly — because a lot of people here (in the Broncos organization) know — he’s going to be a special player for a while.”

Johnson is the wild card of the group. His nose for the football popped him onto draft radars at Indiana, and led to the Broncos selecting him in the fifth round last year. But he missed much of training camp last year after being placed on the COVID-19 list. He lost ground in the competition for playing time and never caught up. By the end of the season, he had just three regular-season games to his name — and no defensive snaps.

The numbers game could work against Johnson. Locke and Sterns appear to be in good shape heading into camp. And as a fifth-round rookie, it would be a surprise if Turner-Yell doesn’t stick.

Turner-Yell is a good scheme fit for Evero’s defense, which incorporates a slew of Vic Fangio concepts. His aggressive instincts should yield the opportunity for game-changing takeaways. The key for the Oklahoma rookie is to improve the angles he takes in coverage.

And free-agent pickup J.R. Reed could fill a significant special-teams role if he sticks on the roster. Reed played 117 snaps for the Los Angeles Rams over the last two years. All of them came on special teams under the watch of current Broncos special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes, who was the assistant special-teams coach under former Broncos assistant Joe DeCamillis.

And Evero knows Reed well, having served as safeties coach in Los Angeles through 2020 before becoming their secondary coach and pass-defense coordinator last year. That familiarity — as well as Reed’s special-teams capability — gives him a chance to stick.

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Summary

All the intrigue is behind Simmons. Can Locke and/or Sterns do enough to push Jackson and possibly nudge their way into the starting lineup? What can Johnson do to avoid getting lost in the shuffle? And can Turner-Yell work his way up the depth chart?

This is a position from which the Broncos might make a trade in advance of the roster deadline. There isn’t enough room for all seven on the 53-man roster. But everyone in the room is good enough to land on someone’s squad and get a jersey on game days.

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Broncos 2022 Training Camp Preview: Safeties