In 2019, the safety position provided the Denver Broncos with a significant boost in on-field production. Previously, our Broncos Pro Football Network analyst Zach Segars covered the Broncos’ running backs in his latest article, today we’ll be reviewing the Broncos’ safeties in 2020. We’re taking a deeper look into each position and player and analyzing how they fit into the mix for a spot on the final roster for the Broncos.
Overview of the Broncos 2020 safeties
The Broncos have one of the more talented duos of starting safeties in the National Football League. Justin Simmons is on the verge of becoming a future star and could potentially become the highest-paid safety in the league this week. Kareem Jackson turned into general manager John Elway’s best free-agent signing from 2019, making the transition from cornerback to strong safety and having one the best years of his playing career alongside Simmons.
The Broncos lost safety Will Parks in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles and needless to say, the loss of Parks has left a void in the Broncos’ safety room. Outside of Simmons and Jackson, the Broncos lack experienced depth at the position. Between the three other non-rookie safeties on the roster, there are only 20 career games played and 18 of them belong to one player.
As Zach pointed out in his article highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the Broncos defense, the Broncos are one injury away from relying on inexperience at the position. With a variety of young and inexperienced players behind the starters, the position battle for the backend of the group will be something to keep an eye on at training camp.
Third-year safety Trey Marshall has the most experience of the group, playing in 16 games in 2019 and starting the final two games for the Broncos. P.J. Locke III, Alijah Holder, Kahani Smith, and undrafted free agent Douglas Coleman III will be battling for a final spot on the 55-man roster.
Can Trey Marshall grow into a bigger role with the Broncos?
Marshall played in all 16 games in 2019 primarily with a role on special teams. He started the final two games of the season after Jackson began to serve a two-game suspension. Marshall filled in nicely in his two starts, playing aggressively against the Detroit Lions and the Oakland Raiders. Marshall came away from those games with a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in key moments. With Parks’ departure in free agency, we could see Marshall take on a bigger role in 2020.
Marshall played a versatile role in 2019 by contributing to the kick-off and punt coverage team while also playing quality snaps in coverage and run defense. On film, Marshall showed both physicality and a willingness to tackle, and while he wasn’t perfect in pass coverage, he played particularly well in man coverage concepts when he was matched up on tight ends or bigger receivers. He has shown coaches that he can be a valuable backup behind Simmons and Jackson and he’ll likely be a key contributor in the secondary.
What will happen if we see Justin Simmons play on the franchise tag?
After rising into a star safety for the Broncos under head coach Vic Fangio, Simmons has earned the opportunity for a big payday. With other safeties around the league receiving big paydays, Elway placed the franchise tag on Simmons before he could hit the free agency market. Despite having the franchise tag placed on him, Simmons can still sign a long-term deal with the Broncos before this Wednesday’s league deadline for contract extensions.
In the past, Elway has utilized the franchise tag in order to buy more time to negotiate a long-term contract. He used this tactic with former kicker Matt Prater in 2012, former left tackle Ryan Clady in 2013, former wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in 2015, and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller in 2016. Now, Elway has until July 15th to sign Simmons to a contract that could make him the league’s highest-paid safety over Chicago’s Eddie Jackson.
However, if Simmons and the Broncos can’t come to an agreement, he will have to play the 2020 season on the franchise tag and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. If players like New York Jet’s safety Jamal Adams get their contracts done before Simmons, the Broncos could end up paying much more than they originally would have or they could potentially lose Simmons to the highest bidder in free agency.
Knowing how much Simmons is loved by his teammates and by the fans, it would be hard to imagine Simmons playing anywhere other than Denver.
Can Alijah Holder keep up with the pack?
As we’ve said before, outside of Simmons and Jackson the Broncos lack experience at the safety position. One player on the roster who might make the team as an all-around defensive back is Holder. Holder was undrafted by the Broncos in 2019 and saw limited action on special teams in two games last season. Holder will have to prove himself in Fangio’s scheme in order to battle for a spot in the secondary.
After a strong preseason after making the transition from cornerback to safety, Holder could prove to be a special player for Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell if he can impress further in training camp at the end of the month.
Can P.J. Locke III or Kahani Smith earn a spot in the secondary?
Behind Simmons, Jackson, and Marshall, two names that could come up in the discussion for a final spot on the roster are former Texas safety P.J. Locke III and former UTEP safety Kahani Smith. Locke was signed to the Broncos practice squad in 2019 after previously being with the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. Smith went undrafted in 2019 and signed a futures contract with the Broncos.
Locke could have the traits that Fangio and Donatell are looking for in a developmental safety. He has good measurables and traits, including 4.4 speed, great football IQ, and toughness, so expect to see Locke compete for a spot on the final roster as one of the Broncos safeties in 2020.
Smith was productive at UTEP, recording 127 tackles in two seasons, including 81 tackles and ten passes defended in his final season. His overall production at UTEP and the Broncos defensive scheme could benefit him in his fight to be the backup to Simmons. His willingness to tackle will give him favor with Fangio, however, it will be a tough battle to get there.
Could Douglas Coleman III continue the trend of undrafted Broncos gems?
After going undrafted in 2020, Douglas Coleman III signed as an undrafted free agent with Denver and will be competing for a spot in the Broncos young secondary. Coleman started all 12 games for Texas Tech in 2019 and recorded eight interceptions in his final season for the Red Raiders. Coleman could potentially be a sleeper for the Broncos secondary.
I see Coleman as a player that could make a real statement for the Broncos secondary, especially as an undrafted free agent. He is an athletic safety and a ball-hawk, which makes him a great fit for Fangio’s scheme. The inexperience of the safeties ahead of him could make for an even playing field in his fight for a roster spot.
Projecting Denver’s 2020 safeties
With all of these players fighting for an opportunity to play behind one of the leagues’ best safety tandems, it will be a key storyline to watch for the Broncos this month at training camp. This is a position battle that everyone should pay close attention to in order to see how the overall depth of the Broncos safeties, projects in 2020.
Simmons and Jackson are the clear-cut starters for the Broncos going into the season. After his performance late last season and his versatility in the scheme, Marshall likely enters the season as the Broncos third safety.
With two additional spots available on the roster in 2020, it’s possible that we see the Broncos keep one more safety than they did in 2019. With Marshall taking over the third spot, I expect Coleman to steal a spot and be the backup free safety behind Simmons. His ball-hawking skills should do well in this scheme and he has a lot to prove as a rookie. This leaves one potential spot for three players.
Holder has been with the team since last season but played sparingly. However, his versatility as both a cornerback and safety could prove to be useful. Locke and Smith could find themselves in a heated battle for that final spot. I see Locke coming away as the potential fifth safety. Locke is quick, athletic, versatile, and isn’t afraid to come downhill with a full head of steam, making him a good developmental safety under Jackson and Marshall.