Future still bright for Broncos secondary despite shocking departure

The future is still bright in Denver, even after releasing star safety Justin Simmons.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos / Perry Knotts/GettyImages

Just days following the Denver Broncos' surprising decision to release All-Pro safety Justin Simmons, the team chose to bring back standout safety P.J. Locke on a two-year, $7M contract solidifying his status as Denver's new franchise safety. Despite general manager George Paton and head coach Sean Payton making the bold move to part ways with Simmons, there is still hope in Denver's secondary.

The team most certainly will struggle to find an upgrade over Simmons at the safety position, however, Locke is an exciting young player with all the tools to become one of the league's most talented young defensive backs. Filling in for the often-suspended Kareem Jackson, Locke started in eight games in 2023 and recorded one interception, five passes defended, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and allowed just 21 completions in 539 defensive snaps. It was fairly evident early on that Locke was a clear upgrade over Jackson and was even the team's most effective pass-rushing defensive back.

With safety Caden Sterns returning from back-to-back season ending injuries in 2024, Locke will likely continue to play more towards the line of scrimmage in dime packages and may potentially see increased opportunities to rush the quarterback. Speaking of Sterns, when healthy, he has arguably already cemented himself as one of the league's most gifted safeties. Before suffering a season-ending hip injury in 2022, Sterns had allowed an 8.1 passer rating when targeted in five games.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In three of the five games, Sterns started in place of Justin Simmons and allowed just 84 receiving yards in 275 snaps along with recording two interceptions (same game) and four passes defended. If he can remain healthy, which is obviously an enormous question mark, the sky is the limit for Caden Sterns.

As for Denver's depth, the team drafted safety JL Skinner in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Skinner is a big safety who can come downhill and make hard-hitting tackles in the run game, an asset the Broncos secondary is missing without Simmons and Jackson. Skinner is just 22 years old and played in only one defensive snap in 2023, however, he is expected to receive an increased snap count in 2024. With the Broncos hiring former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as their new defensive backs coach, you can probably expect Skinner to take a leap with the proper coaching and development

The Broncos young core of safeties is very promising, especially at a discounted price, and is loaded with talent and potential. Not to mention, the team still has the cap space and late-round capital to add more talent through the draft.

It was smart on Vance Joseph and Sean Payton's part to let rookies Riley Moss and JL Skinner sit and learn rather than be thrown into the fire so early on in their respective careers.