ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In all of the changes, the firings and the hirings that have swirled around the Denver Broncos over the last eight years, one of the few constants has been the No. 31 jersey and the guy who wears it — Justin Simmons.
The safety was the Broncos’ third-round pick in the 2016 draft (98th overall), the lone survivor in a draft class that included quarterback Paxton Lynch and punter Riley Dixon, who is back for his second stint with the team. Simmons has seen change, change and more change.
“I just want to win,” said Simmons, who in his eighth season is the longest-tenured Broncos player.
The Broncos drafted him less than three months after they won Super Bowl 50, yet Simmons has never been to the playoffs — with Sean Payton being his fifth head coach and Vance Joseph being his his fifth defensive coordinator.
Despite the turmoil and turnover, he’s been a Pro Bowl selection, a second-team All Pro selection three times, tied for the league lead in interceptions last season and he once went over three seasons — 3,328 consecutive defensive plays in all — without missing a snap.
“From my perspective as a playcaller, he’s a player you would look at when you’re looking at a defense and you’d say, that guy is always in the right spot, good with his eyes, doesn’t get fooled — savvy and smart,” Payton said earlier this season. “You always want that on your team.”
He’s also a leading voice among the Broncos. So much so that Broncos general manager George Paton said “[he’s] the complete package, an elite player in our defense, a core player and the best of leaders in our community.”
He’s the consummate teammate and representative of the franchise, but the storied Broncos haven’t matched the football success they maintained for decades before Simmons came along.
“I’ve been in that frame of mind, I just want to win, I want us to find ways to win, that’s my mindset,” he said. “I get up every day wanting to help us win.”
Yet for much of Simmons’ career that has been a struggle. Denver is already in a 1-4 hole after Sunday’s 31-21 loss to the New York Jets, with the Kansas City Chiefs next up on “Thursday Night Football” (8:20 p.m. ET, Prime Video).
COMING OFF THE 2015 Super Bowl season, quarterback Peyton Manning retired a few weeks before the draft, but Denver’s defensive depth chart was still filled with the likes of cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end DeMarcus Ware, linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Darian Stewart and safety T.J. Ward.
“All those guys, DeMarcus, Von, Stew, Aqib, T.J., I learned how to be a pro, [wide receiver] Brandon Marshall, I learned what it would take,” Simmons said. “I mean I didn’t play much that year, but I learned everything, I saw every day the best of the best, I saw how I wanted to be. You’re young, you think it will just keep going, but when [former coach Gary Kubiak] stepped away, it was like the first straw, things have been tough.”
The Broncos lost four of their last six games of Simmons’ rookie season, including an overtime loss to the Chiefs that caused them to miss the playoffs. Kubiak announced his departure for health reasons just after the season.
Since then, Simmons has witnessed turnover in every department from ownership to coaching to quarterback.
“[Simmons] has that voice of someone who’s been through it here,” cornerback Pat Surtain II said earlier this season. “Everybody here wants to make the plays that get this team back where we all want it. But you can feel it when he talks, how much he does.”
Now 106 games into his Broncos career after his five-tackle performance Sunday, Simmons — who’s expected to play this week after returning to practice Wednesday — has played more games for the franchise than any other defensive player without a single playoff appearance.
Just 34 defensive players have topped 100 games for the Broncos, a storied group that includes Hall of Famers cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Steve Atwater, as well as linebacker Randy Gradishar, cornerback Louis Wright, linebacker Tom Jackson and linebacker Karl Mecklenberg. And yet only one of those defensive players — Broncos Ring of Famer and defensive lineman Paul Smith — has played in fewer than five playoff games for the team. Smith played in three postseason games in his 11 seasons with Denver, all in the Broncos’ 1977 run to the Super Bowl.
“He’s been through it here, seen a lot and he’s always handling himself the way the guys who make it in this league do,” safety Kareem Jackson said. “Always prepared, always working, always pushing to be better. And he wants to get this team back to where we all want it to be because he’s invested so much.”
THE BRONCOS ARE at, or near, the bottom of almost every major defensive statistical category.
“Just got to be better,” an exasperated Simmons said after giving up 234 rushing yards Sunday. “It’s going to start with the leadership, myself and the backers getting guys lined up.”
It is a seemingly annual struggle with the circumstances that has led him to “really concentrate on being where my feet are.” Simmons wasn’t in uniform for the 70-20 nightmare loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, but he felt “responsible” for some of the defensive meltdown even as he was sidelined with a hip injury.
And as the Broncos continue to try to dig out from that historical loss, Simmons said the challenge for the defense, especially the younger players, is to repair the damage without trying to do too much, reach too far, to make some of the plays to set things right.
Yet another responsibility he said he needs to help shoulder.
“It is the toughest part of the game … especially when you’re struggling,” Simmons said. “You see things and you want to make things happen, but at the same time you also don’t want to expose your job and what you need to do.
“Because ultimately it’s why football is the greatest sport,” he added. ” … In basketball you can have one guy go off for 50, in hockey you have a dominant goalie, in soccer you can have a guy who is just great at getting the ball into the goal, but in football you can have individually great talent all over your defense, but if only seven out of the 11, eight out of the 11, nine out of the 11 doing their job the way they are supposed to, you will have explosive plays all over the place against you.”
It’s partly why in the first half of the Broncos’ Week 4 win over the Chicago Bears, the second game Simmons missed before returning in Week 5, Jackson felt the time was right to call all of his defensive teammates into a group in the first half, after the second Bears’ touchdown, and deliver a fiery football sermon.
“When things aren’t going right, you have to keep to the process, keep to the details,” Jackson said. “Defense is about handling the details, doing things the right way. … You don’t stop that because things aren’t going well, it’s the opposite, and through the years I think that’s been one of Justin’s strengths is week to week, game to game, series to series, concentrating on that.”
“Justin, you see the right way,” Surtain said. “Every day, this league is about consistency, how you do things, how you prepare, how you improve, [Justin] does that, every day.”
Simmons signed a four-year, $61 million deal in 2021 that briefly made him the highest-paid safety in the game. If the Broncos can’t right themselves over the weeks leading up to the Oct. 31 trade deadline, his name could swirl on the rumor mill with several other of the team’s veterans who pre-date the current makeover attempt.
He’s been asked plenty whether he sees a light at the end of the playoff-barren tunnel and he remains a voice of reason.
“I consider it a responsibility,” Simmons said. “I’ve said I don’t just say it to say it, to make it sound cool for articles and things like that, and I don’t, but I consider it a responsibility, a lot of us who have been here do, we feel it’s our responsibility if we’re not playing well to lead. I’m always going to to do that no matter what we’re going through.”