The Broncos haven't been to the playoffs since Simmons arrived in the third round of the 2016 draft. Simmons, now in his fourth season, is poised for free agency in the months ahead. But he wants to turn the Broncos around, and he has made "a big leap" in his game this season, thanks to a coach in Vic Fangio who sees the vastness of his potential.
"In the game, I'm seeing things a lot better than I've probably seen them in the past," Simmons said. " ... I think it's a combination of me and how I'm being coached. As each year goes, you grow. Vic [Fangio's] system has made that easier, and it's a great system to be a part of, but I also know the type of player I am and the skill set that I bring. I think you need the right system as a player, and a system needs the right players."
Or as Fangio put it when asked if he liked Simmons as much before the 2016 draft as he does now: "That's a good question. I don't remember, but I do like him now. I've liked him early on from getting here. I do like Justin. I think he's a really good player, and I see a bright future for him in a Broncos uniform."
The Broncos' work in the 2016 and 2017 drafts was lackluster at best and franchise-crippling at worst. Sixteen players were selected in those two drafts combined, and Simmons is one of just four players considered starters at this point.
Simmons is currently one of the team's most productive and impactful players. He has found a scheme, in Fangio's playbook, that suits the best parts of his combination of skills: intellect and athleticism. Simmons also represents the potential for the Broncos to recapture the Super Bowl success of teams that were largely homegrown.
"That's something we talk about," Simmons said. "... It's like I said, you put another year into that, another offseason, another training camp, another preseason ... We're starting to see what we can be, and that is something I want to be a part of."
Right now, the Broncos have just five position players on their current 53-man roster -- Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Chris Harris Jr., Andy Janovich and Jeff Heuerman -- who have signed a second multiyear deal with the team after being drafted by the Broncos or signed as an undrafted rookie. That's a low rate of return, and it has resulted in a lot of upheaval.
Forty-five players in all, including injured reserve, have arrived the past two seasons.
"That's change. That's what happens when you lose some games," Harris said. "People forget, I think, when we play now, we're just coming together with each other -- me, Kareem [Jackson], Justin, the guys up front. But there could be more changes."
Simmons is everything the Broncos say they want off the field -- he makes weekly rounds through the Denver community at a variety of schools as well as charitable organizations -- and he has flourished on it. If the Broncos are going to lift themselves out of the non-playoff crowd, they will likely have to do it the same way they did in 2011, when Peyton Manning arrived to a team he said was "well built and ready to compete."
Simmons' on-field range gives Fangio flexibility to use him in a variety of ways along the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage. Simmons is second on the team in tackles (55), leads in interceptions (2) and has played the most consecutive snaps the past two seasons of any defensive players in the league (1,645 and counting).
Eddie Jackson went from a fourth-round pick with the Chicago Bears to a Pro Bowl safety in Fangio's time as defensive coordinator in Chicago. Simmons could be next, but it's going to cost the Broncos to keep him. Of the league's top safeties, eight have contracts that average at least $10 million per year, and four of those deals average at least $13.75 million per year (Kevin Byard, Tyrann Mathieu, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas).
Those money matters will be hashed out later. For now, Simmons is quick to say that he wants to be part of a turnaround with the Broncos -- and not just because of football.
The Broncos want him to be part of it, too.
"I love what I do, I absolutely love the game, I love preparing for the game, I love the games themselves, but when it's all done, I hope to be remembered for something beyond being an athlete, a football player," he said.