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New Broncos safety Brandon Jones has proven himself versatile at previous stops. Can he fill void left by Justin Simmons?

For former Texas safeties coach Craig Naivar, players are part of his extended family. So when he saw safety Brandon Jones, who played four seasons with the Longhorns, sign with the Broncos last week, he was thrilled.

Naivar understands every kid wants to play in the NFL. But whenever he talks to recruits, Naivar tries to remind players that the pivotal moment of a pro career is earning a second contract.

Jones, a third-round pick by the Dolphins in 2020, accomplished that when Denver gave him a three-year, $20 million deal earlier this month.

“A lot of guys get that first contract, but are you good enough to stay around and be around for the second and third?” said Naivar, now defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Coastal Carolina. “When guys get that second contract, I think that’s a stamp on their ability, not just physical, but their mental ability to play the game.”

Jones’ arrival in Denver, following a four-year career in Miami, came after the team released veteran safety Justin Simmons despite being named second-team All-Pro and earning his second Pro Bowl nod. Denver needed to clear up cap space, and by parting ways with Simmons, 30, the team saved $14.5 million.

As cost-saving as the move had been, Simmons’ departure left a gaping hole in the defense. His leadership, communication and ball-hawk capabilities proved valuable during his eight-year career in Denver, and his absence early on last season left a noticeable impact on the secondary.

The Broncos hope to fill that void to some degree with Jones. At 25, he has upside with a natural ability to play all over the field and rush the passer, which could create an interesting dynamic with him, P.J. Locke and Caden Sterns, all of whom played together at Texas in 2018.

“(Jones is) instinctive,” Naivar said. “A lot of times, he was in the right spot (and) a step ahead of someone else. That allowed him to make plays.”

At Texas, Jones was known for his speed. As a track runner at Nacogdoches High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, he competed in the 100 meters as well as the 4-by-100 and 4-by-200 relays. On the football field, Naivar said Jones’ closing speed gave him range to cover the field.

“It’s a functional speed. A lot of track guys can’t transfer it to football. He could transfer what he did in track onto the football field,” Naivar said.

That trait has helped Jones become a quality pass rusher in the NFL.

Playing under former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer in 2021, Jones blitzed 69 times, totaling five sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 14 pressures in 15 games (13 starts), according to Pro Football Reference.

Against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3, he had one of his best games in a Dolphins uniform, as he recorded six tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hits.

In 2022, Jones recorded two sacks on 21 blitzes in seven games before he missed the remainder of the season due to an ACL injury. Last season, Jones didn’t record a sack after he was sent to blitz the quarterback only four times in 16 games (six starts) and 463 defensive snaps.

Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph incorporated Jones in a few blitz packages as he did with Locke and nickel cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian in 2023. Locke had three sacks while McMillian had two.

“(Jones) had a great knack for timing, but his acceleration was exceptional,” former Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “He had push-button speed, especially coming off the edges.”

Orlando, currently the defensive coordinator at South Florida, coached Jones for three years. Each season, Orlando noticed how Jones improved in playing in space, and his anticipation got better. An All-Big 12 honorable mention in 2018, he recorded 156 tackles, three interceptions and five passes defended in his last two seasons at Texas.

Although Jones’ pass rush numbers were down in 2023, he put together his best season in coverage. Jones recorded two interceptions, four passes defended and held quarterbacks to a passer rating of 75.3, the lowest of his career.

Jones was asked to move around in Miami’s defense. He played 361 snaps as a free safety, 119 in the box and 54 in the slot during, according to PFF. In 2021, he played 271 snaps in the box, 160 at free safety and 72 in the slot.

His ability to play in multiple spots was also a feature of his game at Texas. In a loss to LSU in 2019, Jones spent the game in the slot, where he played 55 snaps and allowed four catches for 36 yards on seven targets.

“We specifically put Brandon in the slot to cover those freak receivers, and he played well,” Naivar said.

A team captain for the Longhorns in 2019, Jones was respected among his peers, according to Orlando. Whenever Jones talked, everyone listened. Part of that was due to his relentless work ethic and being one of the smartest guys in the room.

Naivar said Jones excelled at studying his craft and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of defensive calls, which helped him coach some of the young players on the team, including Sterns.

“That’s the most important piece of it,” Naivar said. “That allowed him to understand (his) assignment. It also allowed (him) to study (his) opponent so much better.”

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