NFL Analysis

6/7/24

6 min read

Why Is There No Interest in Free-Agent Safety Justin Simmons?

Oct 12, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons (31) celebrates after making an interception against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Simmons remains a free agent. Of our top 100 free agent list from earlier this offseason, Simmons is the second-highest-ranked unsigned player.

The first is Connor Williams, who suffered a torn ACL in December. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, described the injury as “significant” while noting that Williams would recover before he signed with his next team.

That leaves Simmons, the 30-year-old safety who was a second-team All-Pro for the past three seasons, as the top available player on the market.

Simmons became a free agent at an interesting time for his position. Before his release, he was scheduled for an $18.5 million cap hit in the final year of a four-year, $61 million contract signed in 2021.

He entered the market as teams softened on paying safeties and did not present big contracts to players other than Antoine Winfield Jr., Xavier McKinney, and Kyle Dugger. Because there were many talented free agent safeties this offseason — 10 made our top 100 list — teams did not feel the need to overpay. However, the Broncos rushed to sign Brandon Jones to a three-year, $20 million deal, an outlier with the rest of the market.

As we end the first week of June, a few veteran safeties are available, including Simmons. For his part, there does seem to be a bit of patience in picking the right landing spot.

“Honestly, I am looking for a team that is going to give me the best opportunity to play at the level I have been playing at, and on top of that, I am looking for a team that is a contender and is ready to win,” Simmons told The Denver Post. “I feel like I bring a lot to the table leadership-wise but also in my play. I think I can help whichever team it is reach their dreams and goals of winning a Super Bowl.”

Those qualifications would seemingly limit his suitors, but Simmons' priority for team quality is not faultless. Simmons has never been on a playoff team in his eight years in the NFL. He was a third-round pick drafted in the offseason following Denver’s 2015 Super Bowl win, and the 9-7 record the following season is the best he’s seen as a pro. By record, last year’s 8-9 Broncos were the second-best team he’s been on.

That’s unfortunate for a player who has been one of the best at his position during the past five seasons, including four second-team All-Pro placements.


What does Simmons have left?

Simmons' play hasn't dropped off, and he even took on more responsibility as a single-high safety last season.

The Broncos haven’t wildly shifted their coverage tendencies through the transition from Vic Fangio to Ejiro Evero to Vance Joseph, but Simmons took a bigger role as a post-safety on 14.1 percent of his snaps, after 5.7 percent in 2022 and around 7.0 percent in 2021 and 2020. While he played as the single-high safety, he showed he could cover deep with the speed to recover and close in on passes.

He can also sit in the middle of the field and jump on passes that come his way.

Simmons can also be great coming downhill, whether jumping in front of routes or sprinting up to the line to stop a run.

However, Simmons is not the player who can turn a secondary's success around alone. Despite his strong play, the Broncos were 29th in DVOA against deep passes and 32nd against tight ends. However, Denver was 12th in EPA per dropback when they played single-high coverages. 

Simmons’ 2023 stands out because he played well without the ball production that was so impressive earlier in his career. Simmons only had three interceptions in 2023 — two off tips — after he tied for the league lead with six in 2022 and had five in 2021 and 2020. His 23 interceptions during the past five seasons are tied for the most, and his 51 passes defensed are second (first among safeties).

Simmons’ instincts will play in the middle of the field even as he ages. His presence in the secondary could easily boost any secondary that needs help.


Where Could He Fit?

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins have been a rumored landing spot, and the safety even replied to a tweet suggesting he should land in Miami with an eyeball emoji.

The Dolphins have around $19 million in cap space due to the money opening up from their post-June 1 releases. Miami signed Jordan Poyer this offseason to join Javon Holland, but Poyer is 33 years old and only signed for $2 million.

New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver also comes from a Ravens defense that used some three-safety looks during the past two seasons to get its best players on the field.

Buffalo Bills

After moving on from Poyer and Micah Hyde, the Buffalo Bills made sure to re-sign Taylor Rapp. Still, that only leaves Rapp, Mike Edwards, and second-round pick Cole Bishop as potential starters. 

Buffalo uses some of the highest rates of two-high coverages under Sean McDermott (third in 2023). That could place Simmons in a role closer to what he played during his peak years in Denver.

The Bills needed a reset in the back end of the secondary after they ranked 23rd in DVOA against deep passes last season. There is a youth movement all across the roster. That said, even the soon-to-be 31-year-old Simmons would be younger than Buffalo’s safety duo last season.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles are an easy connection because of Vic Fangio. Simmons’ best seasons came under Fangio when he was the head coach in Denver from 2019-2021. That 2019 season was Simmons’s first as an All-Pro.

Philadelphia’s safety lineup is a bit murky at the moment. They brought back C.J. Gardner-Johnson after one year in Detroit, but he could also play the slot. The Eagles seem to like Reed Blankenship, and they just signed him to a one-year extension in April (only for $4 million). James Bradberry is also getting snaps at safety during offseason workouts.

Signing Simmons could create a solid safety duo with Blankenship, allowing Gardner-Johnson and Bradberry to move around more.

Los Angeles Rams

This could be the defense where Simmons would make the biggest difference. The Los Angeles Rams signed Cam Kurl to a steal of a contract this offseason, but that leaves Russ Yeast as the opposite starting safety.

Under Chris Shula, the Rams are still expected to play some of the same coverages as they did under Raheem Morris and Brandon Staley, which come from the Fangio tree where Simmons excelled. 

Pairing Simmons and Curl would be one of the league's more fun safety duos and complete a reworked secondary featuring Tre’Davious White and Darious Williams at cornerback.

It would also allow Yeast to move around more and play in the slot, which he did on 22 percent of his snaps in 2023, and could help develop rookie second-round pick Kamren Kinchens.


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