ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos already needed to keep Justin Simmons.
In another forgettable season — the franchise's fifth straight without a playoff berth — Simmons never missed a snap and produced six of the team's 16 takeways. Then, general manager George Paton took over and made it clear Simmons, unlike the previous offseason, ranked as the franchise's top priority.
"After that first conversation with him," Simmons said Monday during a press conference at the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse, "I thought this thing is going to get done."
From undersized college prospect to the highest paid safety in NFL history, Simmons isn't going anywhere. The Broncos secured him long term with a four-year, $61 million deal with $35 million guaranteed. He has gone from safety net to franchise cornerstone.
"It's a space and cover league. And no one can play in space and cover at safety as well as Justin. It's huge to have him here," Paton said. "It's really nice to reward your own, get Justin to the second contract. And there will be more."
Broncos coach Vic Fangio believed Simmons would be back for the long haul. It was not based on contract talks, but rather discussions with Simmons over the past two years. The former Boston College star wanted to be in Denver, where he has emerged as a strong presence in the community and in the locker room.
"He quarterbacks our secondary," Fangio said. "And he still he has better football ahead of him."
Monday represented a moment of satisfaction for Simmons and his family after he bet on himself last season, turning down contract offers and playing on the franchise tag. He reached his first Pro Bowl, a year after earning second-team All-Pro honors. However, Monday was the not the destination, but rather a mile marker on a journey that will be viewed through a broader lens.
"For me, this is a big opportunity for me to cement myself for years and years and years to come," said Simmons, fully aware of the Hall of Fame legacies of Broncos safeties Steve Atwater and John Lynch and terrific seasons from Brian Dawkins and T.J. Ward.
"Having the individual accolades is great. But this is a team effort. And the past five years, being here, and part of losing seasons, it's about time to be on the opposite side of that and start winning some football games," Simmons said. "The challenge moving forward, obviously there are a lot of things I can do better, echoing what coach Vic said. I personally don't think I have played my best ball. What I am looking forward to is helping the team's success. What can I do from a team aspect? How can I push guys and make sure we are competing at the highest level everyday, so when it comes to it we are winning those close games instead of just being close."
Simmons is durable, reliable and unique. He features a corner's feet with a safety's vision. He roams center field like the Twins' Byron Buxton, looking for ways to change games with angles and IQ. Simmons paced Denver with five interceptions and recovered a fumble last season. Fangio believes he can amplify his impact.
"We are looking for 20 better plays. And we don't know when those things are going to happen. If we can find [Simmons] 10-to-25 better plays over the course of 17 games, that's what I am talking about," Fangio said. "A couple of more picks. A couple of more stops."
Last season, Simmons played well while navigating a carousel of cornerbacks. A.J. Bouye never panned out because of a shoulder injury and a PED suspension, logging seven games. Bryce Callahan was heading to his first Pro Bowl before first hurting his ankle then re-injuring his foot for the third consecutive season, limiting him to 10 contests. Rookies Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey showed promise, but Bassey tore his ACL in November and Ojemudia could benefit from more seasoning.
The secondary received a significant boost with the signing of veterans Ronald Darby and former All-Pro Kyle Fuller. Their addition slides Callahan to the slot, and leaves the Broncos with three players capable of covering tighter than SaranWrap.
"We are set up to make something happen," Simmons said. "I wish we could get started today."
The Broncos are not done yet. They have not closed the door on bringing back Kareem Jackson and could draft a safety. They cut Jackson last week, unwilling to pay his $10 million salary. Can they get him back at, say, $5 million? Jackson hasn't ruled out returning, but the sides have gaps to bridge on the money.
For Simmons, Monday represented a crowning achievement. He took over the starting spot from Ward in his second season. He has exceeded expectations, his contract allowing him to expand the reach of his foundation. It also paints him as a leader going forward, a role he eagerly embraces as the Broncos look to return to relevancy.
"This," Simmons said, "is only the beginning."