Can P.J. Locke assume leadership mantle from Justin Simmons?

Jul 7, 2024, 8:17 PM | Updated: 11:29 pm

P.J. Locke had a long runway to reach the spot in which he finds himself now: the alpha of the Denver Broncos safety corps. And while he didn’t become a full-time starter until the second half of last season, now he heads into his sixth NFL season with the role he’s long sought … but had to take the long way to find.

How he fares at that task will help determine whether the Broncos defense can improve on its form from last year … and whether their gamble to part ways with Justin Simmons will pay dividends.


Locke didn’t skip steps in his path from the practice squad to a starting role. But he does believe he’s been ready for this for a while — long before he actually made his first official career start last season.

“I always felt like I was a starter at at some point,” Locke said during OTAs. “I just needed my break.”

A dislocated big toe during training camp last year delayed that, landing him on injured reserve to open the regular season.

“I was really discouraged, because I felt like I had finally found my role. I was just in tha mode. That injury set me back. And I was upset that I got put on IR.”

But at the behest of Simmons and Kareem Jackson, Locke remained involved. The Broncos defensive backs convened at a local restaurant each week for dinner, and the two veteran safeties encouraged Locke to continue joining his teammates while he lingered on injured reserve.

“We had DB dinners every Thursday, and they’re like, ‘Man, keep coming to DB dinners. You’re still a part of the team,'” Locke said.

P.J. Locke (Photo by Andrew Mason /

Fast-forward eight months to OTAs. P.J. Locke has a successful ascent to the first team on his CV — and a new two-year contract from the Broncos to go with it. Simmons and Jackson are no longer with the Broncos.

The dinners are still a thing. But now Locke has to help plan them.

“I pretty much have to take over the role,” Locke said. “And I have Pat (Surtain II); Pat helps organize everything. He big money and everything.”

Locke hoped to re-sign with the Broncos this offseason; that came to pass. But he didn’t expect Simmons to no longer be part of the room. That accelerated the timetable of Locke assuming the reins of the safeties.

“I expected to play with Justin at least one more year,” Locke said. “And then when I heard the news, I had a shift in mindset. It was like, ‘Golly, man. I thought was going to have one more year to watch how he do things.’ So, right now, I’m working through stuff.

“It’s not really hard. It’s just trying to find my way to do it. I’m not Justin. I’m not Kareem. I’m more of a lead-by-example type of guy.”

The Broncos hope that Locke’s leadership style will be enough.


The first thing that jumps out from the film of Brandon Jones from his time with the Miami Dolphins is his aggression and his ability to attack inside the box. Thus, if he ends up replacing Simmons in the lineup, he represents a different style of safety who could well fit what Vance Joseph wants to do in terms of forcing the issue on opponents.

But Jones believes he can do much more.

“I think throughout my career I’ve been labeled as only being able to do blitzing, or only being able to do one thing,” Jones said during OTAs. “So, I think this year’s going to be a good test for me and a good opportunity for me to show that I can be versatile. I can come down, I can play high, I can be in man coverage, I can also still blitz, be able to show I can do a lot of different things.”


Neither Caden Sterns nor Delarrin Turner-Yell saw any repetitions during offseason work; both were limited to the side field as they completed their recoveries from injuries suffered last season.

For Sterns, his history of injuries goes back to his days at the University of Texas. As a pro, he’s missed 30 of a possible 51 games, including 28 of 34 over the last two seasons, putting the promise he demonstrated as a rookie and early in his second year on hold. He’ll be in the mix, but given the history, anything they get from Sterns must be considered a bonus, and not a primary plan.

Turner-Yell became one of the Broncos’ special-teams leaders last year, but struggled when asked to work on defense, with Miami and Buffalo picking on him in particular when he was forced into action due to injuries, the suspension of Kareem Jackson, or both. He tore his ACL in the penultimate game last season, which puts him right on the edge of possibly being ready by Week 1, as that would be eight-and-a-half months since the injury. It’s doable, but the Broncos might not want to force it.


At various times during OTAs, both JL Skinner and Devon Key saw work with the first team. Skinner, a sixth-round pick last year, played in just two games and had only one defensive snap. But that didn’t mean he was off Payton’s radar; after all, the Broncos saw fit to keep him on their 53-player roster rather than exposing him to waivers by shifting him to the practice squad. They saw something … but it will be up to Skinner now to justify that investment.

“I’d say the second half of last season, even when he was running scout team, we noticed on offense quite a bit, ‘Man, this guy all of the sudden was jumping routes,’” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “He was someone that stood out on the tape. I think he’ll want to build on that.”

Payton noted that special teams would be crucial for Key’s chances to crack the roster, but generally liked what he saw from him during OTAs.

“He’s doing well. Obviously he’s moving around well,” Payton said. “I think that he’s putting together some good days. So again, we don’t get to see the tackling, we don’t get to see certain elements of the game, but these reps for young guys like him are important.”

Key and Skinner will also have to hold off Tanner McCalister, Keidron Smith and Omar Brown. McAlister spent last year on the Cleveland Browns practice squad. Smith, like Key, is a holdover from last year; Smith joined the Broncos’ practice squad in December. Brown, an undrafted rookie, picked off Zach Wilson during OTAs and could have an inside track on a practice-squad spot.

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