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Renck: Sean Payton viewed safety Justin Simmons as luxury Broncos couldn’t afford. Now head coach must live up to his own $18 million paycheck.

When the Broncos walked off the field in Las Vegas on Jan. 7, failing to reach the playoffs for the eighth straight season, they had some problems. The coach had a quarterback he did not want. And the pieces of the roster puzzle did not fit.

It was an easy decision Monday for Sean Payton to move on from quarterback Russell Wilson. The hard part remains the financial reverberations of that move. With Wilson counting $85 million against the salary cap over the next two seasons, the Broncos face more difficult decisions with high-profile players.

Goodbye, Justin Simmons.

That is a sentence I hoped I would write after he won a few playoff games and announced his retirement before heading into the Ring of Fame. Instead, his exit arrived Thursday, with the Broncos announcing their plans to release the four-time All-Pro.

Cutting the star free safety saves the Broncos $14.5 million on their salary cap. The math does not numb the pain. No player has performed better over the last eight seasons in Denver. Or been here longer.

And Simmons’ impact went beyond statistics. He was the cell tower in the middle of the field that made the signal work. Remember when the Broncos defense looked clueless and helpless against the Dolphins and Bears? When Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Fields were more accurate than a DNA test?

Guess who missed those two games with injury? Can you hear me know? The Broncos were tone deaf. And the results were embarrassing.

Simmons served as the air traffic controller, his greatest strengths helping the secondary line up correctly, while playing center field better than Andruw Jones. Simmons owns 30 interceptions, his fingers stickier than taffy.

The 30-year-old was even better off the field, providing help through his foundation for at-risk youth. It wasn’t uncommon for him to show up at the Boys and Girls Club and hang out with kids. It was there he was inspired by club members to create the March for Peace. This past holiday season I was with Simmons and his wife, Taryn, as they surprised families with Christmas trees and presents. Simmons is the type of person you want your daughter to marry.

The problem with professional sports? They are less sentimental than a photo radar ticket. Good guys only sometimes win — their status connected to salary, scheme, coaching changes and ownership whims.

Payton is resetting this roster in terms of his valuations. This was a salary cap move. But it wasn’t. It is an indication that Payton viewed a safety with an $18.25 million salary, no matter how talented, as a luxury. Payton wants to spend money differently, so the Broncos will lean on P.J. Locke — first they have to re-sign him — oft-injured Caden Sterns, second-year player JL Skinner and likely a clearance-rack veteran.

Payton is not alone in viewing the position this way, which is why I wasn’t shocked. Safeties have become the new running backs. Everyone wants a good one, but no one wants to pay them. In the past few weeks, Kevin Byard, Jordan Poyer, Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs and Rayshawn Jenkins have all been released. Simmons is better than all of them and will have no trouble finding work. I wouldn’t be surprised if Philadelphia aggressively pursues him with Vic Fangio running the Eagles defense.

It’s easy to blame Payton for Simmons’ exit, connecting it to Wilson. In truth, this is the beginning of a cleansing. Payton did not leave New Orleans. He brought New Orleans with him. He knows how he wants this team to look — he did not trade for Wilson, he inherited him — and is left to apply bleach to a mess created by four previous coaches in seven years.

Payton is known as a coach, one who could have lived forever in the snapshot of his Super Bowl win. In Denver he must become known as an architect. He is uncompromising in what he wants from his players. It’s why he jettisoned underwhelming edge rushers Randy Gregory and Frank Clark so quickly.

Payton has a type. He wants tough, smart, talented players. Simmons fits that profile, but his salary did not. The safety became a casualty of his contract, and a team that desperately needs to reconfigure its assets.

Fans will despise Payton for this move. It matters little to him because he believes all of those feelings will dissolve if he wins.

Simmons will not to be the last to go. Left tackle Garett Bolles remains vulnerable, and would it surprise anyone if the team moved on from Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy? Those could be trades. The reason Simmons was not dealt is because of the industry’s market correction at his position.

Few people remember when Simmons arrived as a skinny kid from Boston College, a third-round pick with maturity beyond his years. He replaced T.J. Ward, who was cut on the eve of the 2017 season, a move that went over like raised taxes in the locker room. Simmons handled it with aplomb, listening, learning, working.

All he did was his job. The only thing missing from his resume is a playoff appearance. He deserves the postseason. And one day, someday, I expect Simmons to return to this community where he has left an indelible imprint.

Back at Broncos headquarters, Payton has affixed the bulls-eye to his back. This is the life he signed up for — he took the Broncos job because of the ownership group and the fans’ passion for the team, not because he loved the roster.

Payton is no longer revered as a champion, as the man who saved the Saints. In Denver, he’s the guy who went 8-9 and just cut the team’s best player not named Patrick Surtain II.

All he has to do now is live up to his $18 million paycheck that he did not feel Simmons was worth.

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