ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The football road traveled by Justin Simmons has been a few parts strange and a few parts unexpected. But he hopes in his eighth year as a Denver Broncos safety that he'll get to a few places he still wants to go.
“It is a little surreal," Simmons said.
A third-round pick in the 2016 draft after Denver's Super Bowl 50 win, Simmons is the only player left on the roster from that class -- and also the longest-tenured Bronco.
As he moves through an offseason with his fifth different head coach in Sean Payton, Simmons is balancing for the team to get back into the playoff conversation with the reality he has yet to appear in a postseason game.
“I wouldn’t say I hold back my enthusiasm," Simmons said of another organizational reset. “For me, there have been a few constants, that’s helped ... most of the guys in the DBs room have been pretty consistent and there’s still a lot of normal there."
Still, when the Broncos released kicker Brandon McManus last month it formally severed the final connection in the locker room to the Broncos’ last playoff appearance and last Super Bowl win -- both to close out the 2015 season. McManus was the lone player who remained from the title team after the Broncos traded Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams during the 2021 season.
And as the post-Super Bowl attrition thinned the championship ranks with each passing free agency year and coaching change, Simmons has come to symbolize the team's on-field struggles.
The team captain has been one of the most visible players in the locker room, on the field and in the community. He is one of the first players people have come to for answers about disappointing weeks, frustrating months and playoff-less seasons -- all while earning three second-team All-Pro selections to go with a Pro Bowl selection.
As the 2022 season drew to a close, safety Kareem Jackson said: “Justin has seen so much here, been through it, you want everybody to feel the playoffs, we all do, that’s what you do this for, but here you want to see a guy like Justin to be there when this team gets there."
Early on in the team’s search for yet another new head coach, Simmons simply filed the requirements for the job under “I don’t know, I just want to win. That’s all I know, I just want to win."
To that end, there are still a number of familiar faces for Simmons to connect with. Christian Parker was retained by Payton as the team’s secondary coach. Vance Joseph, who was the Broncos' head coach in Simmons' second and third seasons in the league, is now in charge of the defensive playbook as Simmons' fifth defensive coordinator. And, Jackson is back on a one-year deal for his fifth season with the Broncos and 14th overall.
Simmons said Parker’s presence and Jackson’s return were both “huge" for him. Joseph’s presence around the defensive players has been far more prominent than it was when Joseph was wrestling with all that comes with the head coaching job.
“Back then there wasn’t as much dialogue," Simmons said. “[Joseph] couldn’t be as hands-on as maybe he wanted to be ... I feel like I talk to him more in the past few weeks than really had the opportunity to when he was the head coach. He’s in the meeting room now."
Simmons knows he also now has one of the league’s best defensive players in the formation as well in cornerback Pat Surtain II, who has routinely said Simmons is a player “I go to when I have questions." Rookie safety JL Skinner put Simmons on that list as well.
Simmons has tried to avoid any "this is the year" proclamations as head coaches and coordinators have come and gone. He doesn't give excuses or blame bad luck. He has called Payton’s practices “educational" as Payton has made it clear “how he wants things done and why it’s being done."
He knows ending any playoff drought will be about talent, a healthier depth chart and “making those one or two plays to close out games."
“But I still get excited, I still get to play the game at the highest level that I’ve wanted to do since I was little," Simmons said. “Sounds like a cliché response, but I try not to take that for granted."