DENVER -- Tag. You're it.
Is this going to happen again with Broncos free safety Justin Simmons?
The window opens to tag players on Tuesday with a decision required by March 9. New Broncos general manager George Paton espoused the draft and development model in his introductory press conference, stressing the foundation starts with rookies and players earning second contracts.
Simmons fits this profile, and, by all accounts, is a priority for the Broncos who have no depth or ready replacement at either safety position for Simmons or Kareem Jackson. Talking to industry sources, the belief is the Broncos will tag Simmons for a second consecutive season, buying time to work out a longterm deal.
Everything about Simmons' case remains different. The previous four players tagged by former GM John Elway reached agreement on multi-year contracts: kicker Matt Prater, left tackle Ryan Clady, receiver Demaryius Thomas and outside linebacker Von Miller. After offering Simmons a deal early in the 2019 season, the sides never came close to a deal, with hardly movement after Simmons was tagged a year ago.
If tagged, Simmons would become the first safety with this designation in back-to-back years since Jacksonville's Donovin Darius in 2003-2005. Recently, Paton reached out to Simmons, along with several players, getting to know the star, a talk that resonated well with the former Boston College star.
Again, Simmons' case has been atypical. He is a unique player, having logged every snap for three consecutive seasons, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2019 and a Pro Bowl nod in 2020. He represents a leader on the field and off, earning back-to-back Walter Payton Man of the Year award nominations and multiple Good Guy awards for his professionalism with the media.
Understand, the locker room will be watching how this plays out as this is the type of player teammates want to see rewarded -- a homegrown product with terrific production.
So what's the rub? A year ago, Simmons wanted to become the highest-paid safety, eclipsing Eddie Jackson's $14.6 million average salary. Elway never relished resetting the market with any player. Will Paton? Will there be a compromise tied to the reduced salary cap -- it figures to drop from $198.2 million to roughly $185 to $188 million -- and a desire for more security after Simmons successfully bet on himself last season?
Arizona's Budda Baker now owns the top contract for safeties at $14.75 million. If the Broncos tag Simmons, he receives a 20 percent raise to $13.73 million, which is guaranteed if he signs it. The sides can negotiate a longterm deal until July 15 even if Simmons signs the tag.
Simmons admitted at season's end that he would like to stay in Denver, but learned from a year ago that "it is a business."
The Broncos' willingness to tag Simmons shows the gap could be bridged to bump Simmons in excess of $13.73 million and, perhaps, less than Baker's $14.75 million. There is a chance Baker, though, is not the target for Simmons' camp -- he is represented by powerful agent Todd France. Will Seattle's Jamaal Adams try to land a record deal a year before he hits free agency? That could also influence Simmons' position.
Simmons, 27, has earned a longterm contract with his production.
Last season, he intercepted five passes and recovered a fumble. On a defense lacking talent with too few playmakers, Simmons delivered six of the team's 16 takeaways.
Simmons is an elite center fielder, capable of covering ground in a pass-happy league. He does not bring the physical element, but complements Jackson well as the latter is an enforcer. Jackson has a $1.5 million option due March 16 on his $10 million 2021 salary. It makes sense to exercise the option, and if needed, restructure at a later date.
While Simmons might not be the game's best safety, free agency centers on timing and value. Simmons has the leverage of his previous franchise tag and his Pro Bowl berth, and he brings added value to coach Vic Fangio's defense with his ability as a player and an in-game communicator.
Why would the Broncos secure Simmons on a longterm deal? They drafted him and he blossomed in every way under their watch.
A longterm deal also creates flexibility for the salary cap this season. If Simmons plays on the tag, his $13.73 million counts with no elasticity. On a longterm contract, the Broncos could lower his base salary and pay him handsomely with a signing bonus that can be spread out over the term of the deal.
Look at Garett Bolles' deal as an example. Bolles did not seek top money -- in fairness, he hadn't earned it based on his previous three seasons -- and agreed to a four-year, $68 million deal with a $20 million signing bonus and $38 million guaranteed. However, his cap hit for 2021 is only $5 million -- $1 million salary and $4 million in signing bonus.
The time to tag starts Tuesday. Everyone knows Simmons has enormous value, but what is that exact amount? Tick, tock.
"Justin’s a great player,” Fangio said last month. “He plays good and he’s a good person. He’s definitely a guy we want back in all of our plans.”