After previously ranking his top running backs Pro Football Network Senior NFL Analyst Matt Williamson continued his position rankings, focusing on the National Football League’s best safeties, where Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons’ was ranked eighth. Despite a career-high output by Simmons in 2019, there is an argument to be made that he could have ranked even higher. Another Broncos player was excluded from the list despite a strong season in 2019; should Kareem Jackson have been on Williamson’s safety rankings?
Does Justin Simmons deserve a top-five ranking for 2020?
In his first season in new head coach Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme, Simmons broke out and emerged as one of the NFL’s rising-stars at the safety position. In Williamson’s analysis regarding Simmons’ placement, he provided him with plenty of praise.
“Simmons was nearly unbeatable last year, and the Broncos slapped the franchise tag on him to ensure that he didn’t leave town,” Williamson wrote. “He is a very good and underrated run defender, but Simmons’ value comes more downfield in coverage. He looks only to be getting better.”
Simmons’ ranking should only continue to improve once he gets back on the field for 2020. Now that he has had a full season to familiarize himself with Fangio’s complex, yet defensive back-friendly scheme, he should be able to step up his performance level. In his first season within Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, Simmons set career-highs for interceptions (four) and passes defended (15), while recording more than 90 tackles for the second consecutive season. Among Williamson’s top eight safeties, Simmons led them all in total tackles and was tied for fourth in interceptions.
In 2019, Simmons emerged as one of the league’s best over-the-top coverage safeties in his first year being coached by Fangio. He was targeted just 53 times, allowed a completion percentage of 52.8, a passer rating of 43.6, and 5.4 yards per attempt. The low yards per attempt number is impressive considering that when he was in coverage, he was typically playing in the deep middle of the field, which should lead to a higher number of yards allowed per attempt.
How should explosiveness and athleticism play a role in these rankings?
It’s also fair to assume Simmons still has some unrealized potential, considering he earned an ‘elite’ Relative Athleticism Score (RAS) of 9.38 out of a possible 10.00. Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who Williamson has ranked as the NFL’s third-best safety, is the only player ranked ahead of Simmons that came into the NFL with a higher RAS. The only other safety on Williamson’s list with a higher RAS than Mathieu is Justin Reid of the Houston Texans, making Simmons the third-most explosive safety on the list.
The most persuasive argument for Simmons ranking coming in as low as it is in 2020, is that he’s only demonstrated the ability to play at an elite level for one season, while most of the players ranked ahead of him have been dominant for multiple seasons. There are exceptions to that rule with Derwin James, who was injured for most of 2019, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who didn’t live up to his draft stock before being traded to Pittsburgh. With that said, Fitzpatrick and James have both proven they can take over a game and carry their team to victory, making it hard to argue that Simmons deserves to be ranked ahead of them.
Kareem Jackson misses the cut in Williamson’s safety rankings
Throughout Williamson’s safety rankings, several players made the list that could have been replaced by Jackson. After Jackson’s strong 2019 season, it was a surprise to see him excluded from the list.
In his very first season playing safety for a majority of his snaps, Jackson played very well. In 2019, he played in only 14 games, yet finished the season with 71 total tackles, four tackles for loss, 10 passes defended, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and one defensive touchdown. As far as advanced stats are concerned, he allowed a completion percentage of 61.4, a passer rating of 75.8, and 6.3 yards per attempt when targeted. If he had played the final two games of the season, his productivity and numbers would have likely reflected a similar pattern to Simmons.
Who could Jackson have been included ahead of?
Despite missing the final two games of the 2019 season, Jackson’s on-field production was better than several safeties included on the list. He led Chauncey Gardner Johnson of the New Orleans Saints (ranked 15th on Williamson’s list) in all of the aforementioned statistical categories. He only trailed Washington’s Landon Collins (ranked 20th) in total tackles and tackles for loss, leading him in all of the others. Finally, he led New York Jets S Marcus Maye (ranked 21st) in every category outside completion percentage allowed when targeted.
Not only did both Jackson and Simmons have statistical seasons that rival most players on Williamson’s list, but their on-field production spoke to them doing more with less surrounding talent amongst them in the secondary. Denver’s cornerback group was plagued by injury last season, and Chris Harris Jr. had one of his worst seasons as a Bronco. These factors put a lot of added pressure on the shoulders of Jackson and Simmons in coverage, but both players rose to the occasion to become one of the NFL’s top safety tandems.