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Broncos release Pro Bowl safety, franchise staple Justin Simmons

The Broncos started their march toward salary cap compliance Thursday morning with a foundational change.

The club released Pro Bowl safety and franchise stalwart Justin Simmons, it announced.

Simmons had played his entire career in Denver since getting drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft. He has either been named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press or made the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons and in 2023 grabbed both of those recognitions.

“Justin Simmons’ impact as a Denver Bronco extends far beyond his exceptional play during eight seasons with our organization,” said a statement attributed to the team. “In addition to growing into an All-Pro and team captain, Justin became our perennial Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year devoted to uplifting others and using his influence for positive change. Whether it was in Denver or his hometown of Stuart, Florida, Justin inspired and mentored countless youth while providing unwavering support to the community. The hundreds of hours he spent at the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club will be as much a part of Justin’s legacy with the Broncos as his leadership, dependability and many interceptions.”

Simmons had indeed become a deeply rooted part of the Denver community through his foundation and his work, particularly with at-risk youth.

He wrote an extensive thank you to Denver, the Broncos and fans Thursday evening via social media, including everyone from employees at the team facility, to teammates, to the group that drafted him — John Elway, Joe Ellis and the late Pat Bowlen — to current general manager George Paton and the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group.

“Thank you for embracing me and Taryn as a newly married couple and watching us leave as a beautiful family with three beautiful children eight years later,” he wrote in part. “You have always supported us consistently both on and of the field.”

Simmons had reached the final year of his contract in 2024. He had an $18.25 million salary cap figure and no guaranteed money left on his deal. Releasing him saves Denver $14.5 million on its salary cap.

“Justin will always be a Bronco, and we thank him for the outstanding manner in which he represented our organization on and off the field,” the team said. “We wish Justin, his wife Taryn, and their children Laney, Shae and Kyler the very best in the future.”

The offseason has been a brutal one so far for veteran safeties in situations similar to Simmons. The list of players released in recent days also includes Jordan Poyer from Buffalo, Kevin Byard from Philadelphia, Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs from Seattle, and Rayshawn Jenkins from Jacksonville.

Even among that group, Simmons should have a market in his first venture into free agency. Philadelphia would make sense, given the presence there of defensive coordinator and former Broncos head coach Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Christian Parker, who spent the past three seasons in Denver. So, too, would Green Bay, a safety-needy contender that recently hired Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley as its defensive coordinator. Hafley and Simmons didn’t cross over at BC, but there’s likely at least familiarity there.

Regardless, Simmons will have a market. The Broncos’ defensive turnaround in 2023 started essentially when he got healthy after dealing with a groin/quad injury the first month of the season.

“Me and Justin talk every single play,” inside linebacker Alex Singleton told The Post during the season. “It’s almost like unspoken communication a lot of the time but then also there’s just so much communication. Before the snap, I’m turning around and talking to him 90% of the time and we’re not even looking at the play a lot of the time.”

Now, that communication and the safety room overall will look substantially different next year than it did for the past several, when Simmons and Kareem Jackson patrolled the back end.

The Broncos are interested in bringing free-agent safety P.J. Locke back, sources have said, and hope to finally get a long, healthy run of play out of Caden Sterns, too. The team also believes in the development of sixth-round 2023 pick JL Skinner, though he hardly played as a rookie. Then there’s free agency — there are plenty of veterans now on the market — and the draft in April.

Still, putting a player in Simmons’ spot doesn’t replace his presence in the locker room or the community.

Reaction poured in on social media from players on the team. All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain said, “This one hurt man!” Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto said, “(What) did I just wake up to” with a broken heart emoji and later added, “Denver legend.”

Fellow safety Caden Sterns showed his support for Simmons, too, saying, “The realest to be around, one of the greatest to do it. Can’t thank you enough for taking me under your wing. Forever grateful, Love 31!”

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