ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The future is near, and the future is bright, at least for the Broncos’ secondary.
After leading the league in pass defense in 2015, in large part due to the defensive backfield, the Broncos made it a priority in the 2016 NFL Draft to continue to bolster that unit. Of their eight selections in the draft, two of them were safeties including their third round pick — No. 98 overall Justin Simmons.
Now, not even a year later, their rookie seasons in the books, Simmons and sixth-round pick Will Parks’ future with the team are already set in stone. It’s so clear in fact, that new defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson is already giving his stamp of approval on the two young safeties even though he’s never coached them in a game.
“Well, right now we have a good mixture,” Robertson said as he talked about balancing the veterans and youth. “Obviously [Aqib] Talib, Chris [Harris Jr.] they are older [defensive backs]. T.J. [Ward] is getting up there, [Darian Stewart] ‘Stew’ is getting up there, but we drafted the two young safeties. They are going to be really good players; they are going to be here a long time.”
While Ward has one more year on his contract, and Stewart is about to begin the first of his four-year extension, it is likely that the two young safeties will be in a backup role for at least another year. However, once their waiting period is over, Robertson not only believes they will be capable starters, he thinks they will be special players.
“Oh I think the sky’s the limit for them,” he said. “When I look at Justin Simmons—a guy who I evaluated last year, a guy me and [defensive coordinator]Joe [Woods] talked about coming out of the draft—I think he has a phenomenal skill set. I think he has some versatility. I’m hoping to turn him into a legitimate ballhawk in the middle of the field and obviously a sure tackler in the open field.”
The “ballhawk” safety ahead of Simmons on the roster right now would be Stewart. Despite Stewart playing 94 percent of the defensive snaps last season, including six games in which he didn’t miss a single play, Simmons was still able to see the field for 26 percent of the snaps.
The story is nearly identical on the other side with Ward and Parks. While Ward was incredibly reliable—playing 86 percent of the defensive snaps last season, including six games where he didn’t miss a snap—Parks was still able to find the field in 23 percent of the total snaps. Even taking less than a quarter of the snaps during the season, Robertson likes what he sees from Parks.
“Will Parks I think has a lot of versatility. I like him because he’s tough as nails, he’s coachable,” the former All-Pro-player-turned-coach said. “I think he’s going to be very similar to me. I see him, for lack of better words, a poor-man’s T.J. Ward right now. Only time will tell, but I think they have a very positive upside right now, both of those guys.”
For 2017, Robertson and the rest of the defensive staff, will do everything they can to get as much playing time for Simmons and Parks without taking the other defensive backs off of the field.
“They already run five and six defensive back packages, so that’s going to be easy,” he said. “It’s just about which guys rise to the top, based on injuries and things of that nature.”
Even though Simmons and Parks may not get their chance to start in the near future, once they do, the coaching staff will have high expectations for both of the young players. Until then, they can continue to develop behind the best secondary in the league.