News & Analysis

2020 NFL Free Agency: S Justin Simmons tagged by Denver Broncos

As expected, the Denver Broncos have used the franchise tag on free safety Justin Simmons. The franchise designation for free safeties carries with it a one-year guaranteed salary of $12,474,000 and will allow Justin Simmons another year in Vic Fangio’s defense to prove he is worth signing to a long-term deal.

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As the 20th-ranked player on PFF’s 2020 Free Agent board, Simmons is coming off a breakout season in 2019 where he earned the second-highest PFF overall grade (90.8) among safeties. His 0.85 wins above replacement was the best figure of any player at his position.

Highest overall grades among safeties (min. 300 snaps, 2019)
Rank Player Team PFF Overall grade
1 Anthony Harris Vikings 91.1
2 Justin Simmons Broncos 90.8
3 Marcus Williams Saints 88.9
4 Harrison Smith Vikings 88.4
5 Jamal Adams Jets 88.2

Simmons appeared all over the field in Fangio’s defense, logging 371 snaps in the box, 154 snaps at slot corner, 521 snaps at free safety and even five snaps at wide corner. The fourth-year defensive back missed on only four of his 98 tackle attempts, and he covered well enough to collect a combination of 15 passes defended and interceptions while giving up zero touchdowns.

Simmons displayed an ability to match up to route combinations while defending in the slot; he earned a slot coverage grade of 94.2 and allowed just one first down on 15 targets while collecting two interceptions and five forced incompletions. In total, he allowed a passer rating of only 13.9 when targeted in slot coverage, the best figure by any defensive player who saw at least 15 targets in slot coverage last year. 

In many ways, Justin Simmons represents the modern-day safety — a player who is less of a physical banger but offers diversity and range in his pass coverage skills. 

While Simmons did earn the highest run-defense grade (84.2) among safeties in 2019, he primarily excels at the catch point and covers well in space. However, after an outlier 2019 season, the Broncos want to see more than just one season of production their now fifth-year man.

Entering the 2019 season, Simmons had earned a two-year coverage grade (2017-18) of 58.1 and had allowed 41 first downs, eight touchdowns and a quarterback passer rating of 104.7 over that span. Simmons then proceeded to allow a passer rating of just 32.1 in 2019, the best mark among players at the position.

The 26-year-old free safety has not missed a start over the last two seasons, and that experience is now beginning to pay off. The Broncos will now need Simmons to continue his upward progression and help with Vic Fangio’s plans to build a top-rated defense in Denver.

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