2023 has been quite the year for Kareem Jackson. The hard-hitting veteran safety has been suspended twice this season due to laying some vicious hits on opponents, and has become the poster boy for the league's new emphasis on limiting violent collisions. Whether or not his fines and suspensions were warranted is a conversation for another day, for now, the Broncos are just glad to have him back from his recent four-game suspension.
Without Jackson in the lineup, the defense has held up very well. Except for a dud performance against Detroit in week 15, the Broncos defense has consistently dominated opponents by forcing takeaways and bowing up in the red zone. Safety P.J. Locke, Jackson's primary replacement is a big reason for the defense's success. In fact, most of Denver's on-field success this year has been with Locke in the starting lineup, not Jackson.
In just seven games this season, Locke has recorded 34 tackles with three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. At this point in both of their careers, Locke is a more explosive athlete than Jackson, and is more capable in pass coverage.
This is not to say that Jackson's absence from the field has benefited the Broncos entirely. His suspensions this year have opened the door for Locke to get his opportunity, but the Denver secondary has been stretched thin at the safety position. Jackson's return at the very least, will mean more trustworthy depth at a position Denver sorely needs it.
Jackson's return to action also begs another question: who will start? This is a question the Broncos have miraculously avoided answering for most of the year. Whether due to injuries or suspensions, there have not been many instances this year where both Jackson and Locke have been available at the same time. Both of them have been capable starters when they have played, but for now, the Broncos should keep Locke in the starting role.
As mentioned before, Locke is a more capable athlete at this point in his career. Where Jackson is a hard-hitting safety that specializes in blowing up screens and run plays, Locke's athleticism and range makes him the more versatile player. Plus, Locke has played extremely well up to this point and has earned the starting role he currently fills. It is his job to lose.
While I believe Locke should be penciled in as the starting strong safety for the rest of the year, Kareem Jackson is still a player that should be on the field. We have yet to see what the defense looks like with all three of Denver's top safeties in Justin Simmons, Locke, and Jackson available. Slotting Jackson into the "dime" safety role could be a huge upgrade over the team's other options like Delarrin Turner-Yell. This could place Jackson on a limited number of snaps where he can focus on doing what he does best- destroying ball carriers.
At 7-7 and with just three games left to make a push for the playoffs, the Broncos can use all the help they can get right now. The team needs all of its guys to be available, and Jackson's return could not come at a better time. No one can be certain how Jackson will fit back into the defense with a healthy P.J. Locke, but it will be a welcome sight for a team and a defense that is itching to bounce back.