After a breakout season that saw him awarded NFL second-team All-Pro honors and landing as the 68th best player on Pro Football Network’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020, it’s fair to discuss where Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons ranks in regard to the National Football League’s other top safeties.
In our latest Broncos Mailbag, both Patrick Chiotti and Zach Segars answer reader’s questions regarding where Simmons ranks among the NFL’s top safeties, how rookie wide receiver K.J. Hamler can fix his issues with drops, which Broncos player will surprise in camp, and whether Melvin Gordon or Phillip Lindsay will be the workhorse back for Denver this season.
Where does Justin Simmons rank among the NFL’s safeties?
Zach Segars: Simmons ranks closely with the rest of the league’s safeties
I believe Simmons is the third-best safety in the NFL, behind Jamal Adams and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was transformative for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense last season, despite having no familiarity with their defensive scheme before being traded following Week 2. The Steelers were one of the league’s better defenses in 2019, and Fitzpatrick was a key reason why. He intercepted five passes, one short of the league lead, forced and recovered a combined five fumbles, and had one defensive touchdown.
Meanwhile, Adams is one of the league’s best box safeties. He is also the most impactful run defender in the league at a position that isn’t on the defensive line. When Adams played in the box for the Jets, they surrendered just 1.9 yards per carry, and their tackle for loss rate jumped from an already league-leading 19.2% to an incredible 30%.
Meanwhile, Simmons is the prototype of what teams are searching for as a ball-hawking free safety. However, he hasn’t proven he can transform an entire defense on the same level that Fitzpatrick and Adams have. That said, he isn’t far off, and should only get better with more time in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme which should increase where Justin Simmons ranks in this discussion next season.
Patrick Chiotti: Justin Simmons rank is higher than where he gets credit
When the NFL releases their often-controversial Top 100 players list every year, you expect to see the best players listed. However, that wasn’t the case for Simmons, who despite having the best season of his career in 2019 under head coach Vic Fangio and earning him a Second-Team All-Pro selection from the Associated Press, it was not enough to be selected to the Pro Bowl or make the NFL’s Top 100 list this season.
When comparing Justin’s 2019 season to other notable safeties in the league, Simmons is quite comparable to the likes of Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, Fitzpatrick, Harrison Smith, and the highest-paid safety in the league, Eddie Jackson in terms of rankings. Simmons had 65 solo tackles, leading the group alongside Smith. Simmons also led the group in tackle assists with 28, while tying Mathieu in second for interceptions with four, one behind Fitzpatrick, who led the group.
However, when you look deeper into their production on the field, Simmons looks to stand out from the pack. In 2019, Simmons allowed a 52.8% completion percentage, only allowing 28 catches on 53 targets. He also held opposing quarterbacks to a 43.6 rating and allowed only one touchdown all season. Simmons was also a sure tackler, missing just 7.9% of his tackle attempts.
When looking at advanced player metrics, no other safety among the group really comes close to Simmons except for Adams. When trying to determine where Justin Simmons ranks among the NFL’s best safeties, it’s safe to say he should at least be mentioned in the upper echelon.
Segars: Hamler should benefit from experience around him
Hamler finds himself under the microscope entering his rookie season. His problematic drop rate of nearly 15% during his redshirt sophomore season was linked to two factors. First, some of his drops were related to his concentration on tracking the ball all the way into his hands and making sure he completely secured the pass before trying to get upfield. There isn’t a quick and easy fix outside of repetition and practice for him to improve in this area, but it is something he should be able to fix if given time.
The second factor in Hamler’s drops was Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who struggled with erratic ball placement last season, which didn’t help his receivers secure the ball. This should improve for Hamler in 2020 with his leap into the NFL, as he will now be catching passes from a pro-level quarterback in Drew Lock. As Lock and Hamler build chemistry, and Lock’s accuracy improves as he continues to develop his footwork, Hamler’s drop rate should improve as well. However, if it doesn’t improve, it might be hard for Hamler to crack the starting lineup in a Broncos wide receiver room loaded with talent.
Even if Hamler’s drop rate doesn’t improve, which seems unlikely, it shouldn’t impact his on-field effectiveness that much. His rare speed makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field, on almost any given route, and defenses will have to adjust their coverages as a result. They won’t be willing to gamble on that almost 15% drop rate, because of the probability of him reeling in a catch and finding a seam for a big play, or a score is much higher than 15%.
Chiotti: Broncos coaching will be important for Hamler transitioning into the NFL
While Hamler might have struggled at Penn State with drops, it’s difficult to pin all of the dropped passes purely on the new Broncos WR. Hamler didn’t necessarily have the best quarterback throwing to him at Penn State, and some of his drops were directly correlated to poor QB play.
However, making the transition to the NFL, Hamler landed on a team that has one of the position coaches widely considered to be among the best in the league. WR Coach Zach Azzani has worked well with college players who were notable for dropping passes, including third-year receiver Courtland Sutton, who dealt with his fair share of drops in college and has grown as a pass catcher in the NFL.
With the better quarterback play at the NFL level and improved coaching, we should see the drops become a non-issue for Hamler.
Who are players that you see surprising coaches at Broncos training camp?
Segars: Callahan could be what the Broncos were missing last season
I believe that cornerback Bryce Callahan is going to be a pleasant surprise for Broncos Country this season. He was one of the Broncos key free-agent signings in 2019, and even though he wasn’t able to step onto the field last season, he’ll be an impact player for the Broncos in 2020.
He’s familiar with the scheme that Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell will be running, as he’s played in it throughout his entire career, and he’s gotten better every season. In 2018, when he last played, he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, and with his coverage versatility and football IQ, he was a great fit for Fangio’s defense in Chicago.
The Broncos will need him to replicate his prior success this season in Denver, as the starting talent at cornerback surrounding him and A.J. Bouye is questionable. Considering how much pressure will be on his shoulders, he will be one of the key players that will indicate how the Broncos will perform defensively in 2020.
Chiotti: Tuzska could become an under the radar player for Denver
Looking at the Broncos’ roster right now, there are a couple of players that I think could make a name for themselves at training camp. I’ll leave out the obvious ones like Jerry Jeudy and Hamler, and mention a couple of other players because it would be too difficult to narrow it down to just one singular player.
The first player I see making an impression on the coaching staff early in the season is seventh-round pick Derrek Tuszka, the edge and outside linebacker from North Dakota State. Tuszka has explosive athleticism coming off of the edge and demonstrates discipline when working in space. I believe he could fit very well in Fangio’s defensive scheme and will push guys like Justin Hollins and Malik Reed for snaps.
The second player I see potentially making an impact in training camp is undrafted rookie cornerback Essang Bassey out of Wake Forest. Bassey has the ability to compete for a spot in the Broncos rotation at CB on the outside or play a vital role as a slot defender. With Fangio indicating that the Broncos may be playing in more nickel and dime sets in 2020, Bassey’s potential role becomes even more important to the team.
Who do you see getting more touches between Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon?
Segars: Lindsay has a strong advantage for more touches
The Broncos want to make Gordon their workhorse running back, which is why they signed him in free agency rather than giving Lindsay an extension. However, Lindsay could still easily end up getting the ball more in 2020. Denver also wanted to make Royce Freeman the team’s bell-cow back going into the 2019 season, but Lindsay was quick to outperform him and get a majority of the on-field reps; 2020 will likely go similarly.
The greatest weakness in Lindsay’s game after his first two seasons in the league were his efforts in the passing game, but after working hard to polish those aspects and building chemistry with Lock this off-season, he should be more involved in the air attack in 2020.
From 2016 to 2019 Melvin Gordon’s OSM decreased every single year at a decline of 62%. We predict an OSM between 8.4 and 12 for the 2020 season
Also, when you look at Gordon’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), it’s been on a steady decline since his rookie season. That’s especially troubling when you factor in the recent history of how running backs outside of Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott have performed on their second contracts.
Chiotti: Broncos could benefit from the traits of both Lindsay and Gordon
Our PFN Insider Benjamin Allbright recently reported that the Broncos should see a pretty even split in touches between Lindsay and Gordon. I’ve talked about in the past about how Gordon fills that “thunder” role more so than third-year running back Royce Freeman, but Lindsay’s production in his first two NFL seasons is nothing to scoff at.
One thing to consider is that prior to Lindsay’s rookie season, it was said that Freeman would be the starter, and Lindsay would be splitting reps with the former Oregon Duck. Lindsay quickly took over as the starter and held onto that role going into his second season. So while there are reports of splitting carries, I expect one of these backs to take the starting role and run with it.
I do believe that both Lindsay and Gordon are starting-caliber RBs, and both of them provide the Broncos with a different dynamic than most NFL teams. Ultimately, the back that is more productive with the ball in their hands will be the back that gets the most touches, and so far, Lindsay has done that in both of his first two seasons. We could see Gordon on the field in more on shorter distance running downs and in certain passing situations, but all-in-all, this is Lindsay’s job to lose.