There is some potentially very negative fallout to no Justin Simmons deal.
Even in times where there is a fear of “economic uncertainty” for the NFL, it makes very little sense that the Denver Broncos would not be able to pay market value for All-Pro safety Justin Simmons.
Simmons was slapped with the franchise tag early in the offseason, worth a fully guaranteed $11.44 million in 2020.
That’s not a bad pay raise for Simmons, whose career earnings up to this point are just over $4.3 million.
Even so, the principle of the matter is that Simmons has done everything right throughout his first four years in the NFL, including playing literally 100 percent of the team’s snaps over the last two seasons. Simmons’ availability, ability, and leadership qualities are all key reasons why he deserves to even re-set the safety market in the NFL.
There is a business side to everything, but the Broncos can’t be focused solely on the bottom line when it comes to a new deal for Simmons. It’s equally bad business to withhold a new contract from a player like Simmons, who has done everything to deserve a long-term extension.
There will be ripple effects if the Denver Broncos do not sign Simmons to a contract, at least that’s my prediction.
Up to this particular point in time, the Broncos have been largely unaffected by these types of off-field distractions, but not giving Simmons a new contract could create a new wave of behavior from star players on the team.
The big potential effect of no deal for Justin Simmons
If Justin Simmons is not re-signed to a new contract, I am predicting that the Denver Broncos will begin to see more of their young star players hold out or demand trades in advance of their contract’s expiration.
Let’s take a quick trip back to 2015. The Broncos were preparing for a championship run, potentially the final year Peyton Manning would spend with the team. It ultimately would be.
The Broncos were definitely tight up against the salary cap with new contracts looming for key players like Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Brock Osweiler, Danny Trevathan, and Malik Jackson.
John Elway has rarely signed a player in-house before their contract expired to avoid a player hitting free agency. It has happened a couple of times, namely with players like Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe signing contract extensions in the winter before their contracts expired.
The Broncos managed to get both of those players for a fraction of what their market value would be if they hit unrestricted free agency.
For whatever reason, they didn’t do that for players like Trevathan, Jackson, and Osweiler and instead opted to let them play out their contracts and seek out their market value from other teams.
In the case of those players, the danger of letting a player hit the open market was realized.
Jackson was adamant after signing his free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016 that the Broncos could have re-signed him and all of the other players for way less than they got on the open market.
The Broncos have lucked out with some of these star players not really having leverage to hold out or sit out or demand trades. Another example you could look at would be tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the majority of his first two seasons due to injury.
After Thomas’ breakout season in 2013, he entered a contract year in 2014 and the Broncos opted to let him play out the remainder of his deal and let him go to free agency ahead of the 2015 season, where they predictably struggled at the tight end position.
Thomas didn’t have the leverage to demand a trade from Denver at the time, nor did he really have a reason to since Peyton Manning would elevate his free agent value nicely anyway.
Jackson was not a full-time starter until his third NFL season. Trevathan had also missed significant time with injury.
Osweiler was a backup QB whose future with the team seemed all but certain one way or another.
There are plenty of NFL teams who put faith in the players they draft by re-signing them before free agency even becomes an issue. The Chiefs are a recent example. The Philadelphia Eagles are another team that really sets the bar in this regard.
The Broncos are certainly under no obligation to re-sign their best draft picks before they hit free agency, but they are also a team that has a long history of using players on their rookie contracts and rarely keeping them around long-term.
And I mean rarely.
Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Jeff Heuerman, and Virgil Green are the only John Elway draft picks who have gotten second contracts from the team.
Elway went down to the wire even for Von Miller, arguably the best player besides Elway himself in Broncos franchise history.
Let’s come back to the present and look at the case of a player like budding superstar wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
Sutton is entering his third year in the NFL. He has now made a Pro Bowl with an unfathomably bad quarterback situation in his first two NFL seasons and he has a chance in year three to establish himself as a true star in the NFL.
If that happens, why should Sutton commit to playing out the final year of his rookie contract as opposed to holding out for a new deal or trade to a team that will pay him?
Sutton could look at Justin Simmons’ situation and say that the Broncos didn’t pay Simmons a long-term deal even though he was an All-Pro and Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. Why would they pay me?
Why would Sutton risk going out and getting injured in his fourth season knowing his value to the Broncos as their unquestioned WR1 if he could anticipate they would make him play out the final year of his deal before simply slapping him with the franchise tag in 2022?
Because the Broncos didn’t draft well from 2013-17, it’s not surprising the team has not really had this issue up until now. But that could change significantly with a player like Sutton or even Bradley Chubb, players who have established themselves early in their rookie contracts who have the leverage to hold out for a contract extension.
It’s surprising that the Broncos have not encountered this with any of their draft selections in the John Elway era, though they have been pretty fortunate circumstantially with guys who don’t really have much leverage to hold out or who need another year of production to really solidify their free-agent status.
It won’t be long before that’s not the case anymore. It could be Courtland Sutton who sets the tone for a new wave of how the Broncos have to build their team with more home-grown players than simply reshuffling the deck through unrestricted free agency.
I think John Elway has been mostly fortunate to this point to have very few of his players, if any, cause a distraction and force a new contract by demanding a trade or holding out of regular-season games.
That could all change if the team decides hardball is more important than rewarding Justin Simmons with a contract he has definitely earned.