As you’ve undoubtedly already heard, T.J. Ward is no longer a member of the Denver Broncos. Ward was cut last week as a result of multiple factors, including the Broncos enviable depth and youth at the safety position, but nothing factored in more than the trust the organization has in second-year player Justin Simmons.
Simmons has started two games in his career, replacing Ward in Weeks 16 and 17 of the 2016-17 regular season, and has since started every game of the preseason, looking anything but out of place.
However, Ward and Simmons aren’t like-for-like replacements of each other, as Simmons is at his best playing in coverage, often as a high safety, and Ward did the majority of his damage roaming the box, coming downhill to wreck havoc.
With Simmons, Denver now has a much more versatile duo of starting safeties and some of the same elements Ward brought to the table in their young dime linebackers, Will Parks and Jamal Carter.
Despite all this, many still don’t know what to expect of Simmons in his new starting role. Will he succeed? How will he change Denver’s secondary? What will the Broncos do to replace Ward’s intensity and intimidation?
We jumped into the film to look for some of the answers.
The first, and ultimately best thing you can say about Simmons in coverage, is that he’s a reliable and trust worthy deep-safety. In the end, that’s what you need from the position. The safety is your insurance, your goalie; if nothing else, you need to be able to trust him. Simmons has that; he won’t get burned deep, and he’s very sound in coverage.
Having played tons of high-safety as the starter in Ward's absence, his versatility was clear, as he can line up as a single-high but also worked well with Darian Stewart in cover-2 looks where he’s maybe even better closing down on plays.
Simmons has everything you need to be a phenomenal free safety. He’s a great help defender, he can play deep or on the line in man, he has outstanding ball skills, he never lets anyone get deeper than him and is simply a reliable last line of defense.
No. 31 has already shown himself to be sound in coverage as a rookie, and his ability to close down plays should only get better as he gets more comfortable with NFL speed. He’s also disciplined and understands situational football, leaving more of a cushion and playing things safer with a lead against the Raiders in his start Week 17, while playing more aggressively and closing to the ball with more urgency while playing behind KC in Week 16. The IQ is there.
He has what it takes to work well with Stewart and is a talented youngster, all comforting signs since he’s the starter now. What gets you excited, though, are his skills in coverage, where he’s very smooth. Simmons is competent playing up against the line in press on bigger tight ends and is even able to take on slot receivers. His talent covering in man has flashed as a special trait and is an area of his game that should be used more now as he still was mostly playing in zone.
Against the run and as a tackler
While Simmons is safe in coverage and much more versatile than Ward was, his ability as a tackler isn’t on par. It's not just his impact against the run, but simply as the last line of defense, Simmons' tackling is a bit of a question mark.
This is to be expected given that Ward is a completely different player, and also a strong safety while Simmons is a free, but it is his greatest area of weakness, and it particularly showed in his first career start against the Kansas City Chiefs, who picked on him a bit.
To be clear, Simmons’ issue is less so against the run and more so getting caught in space having to tackle on screens or unconventional runs. The Chiefs staff, led by the bright offensive mind of Andy Reid, isolated Simmons on a run to the weak side where he was covering tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce blocked him easily, and quarterback Alex Smith ran by for a touchdown as a result.
Simmons isn’t a bad tackler, and he shows good instincts when he’s closer to the line against the run, but he does whiff at times or gets blocked by not reacting quickly enough when playing deeper as a high safety.
Simmons’ biggest weakness in either facet of the game is that he’ll at times hesitate before making his move when closing on a play downhill, that slight hesitation will cause him to miss some plays or give his blockers an extra angle.
As he gets more comfortable with the NFL’s speed, that deficiency should be lessened, and he should make plays quicker. He certainly didn’t miss any noteworthy plays in the preseason. However, with veteran coaches like Reid who understand the Denver ‘D’ has few weak spot,s this is one that can be exploited, and Simmons will have to be up to the task in 2017 to upkeep the high standards.
The real Ward replacements
Stewart is in many ways the Ward replacement in the starting lineup, but he won’t be used like T.J. was. That will likely fall to rookie undrafted free agent Jamal Carter. We’ve already given you the break down of Carter and his ability as a tackler and in the box menace. He’s the most logical Ward replacement in being an intimidator in the box against the run, but he’ll have to pass Will Parks on the depth chart first.
Parks is different from Carter and isn’t as big as him, but he’s a bit more versatile, and he flies around the ball. Parks’ ability to cover and play out of the slot is also intriguing in that dime linebacker position where he’s also useful as a blitzer.
Denver now has two complete safeties in coverage and two intriguing sub package players who can be physical and play up on the line. While his presence on the field will certainly be missed, the Broncos have lots of talent and potentially even more options than before with their safeties even with Ward gone.