ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos introduced George Paton as their general manager in January, he said "drafting and developing players will be our foundation."
The future of safety Justin Simmons could be the first brick in that blueprint.
Simmons, who played under the franchise player designation last season and is the Broncos' most prominent unrestricted free agent, represents a chance for the Broncos to do something they haven't done much of over the past decade: sign one of their own draft picks to an extension.
"It's going to be the lifeblood of this football team," Paton has said of the draft-and-develop approach. "We're going to be aggressive, but we're not going to be reckless in player acquisition. We're going to leave no stone unturned."
The Broncos and Simmons' representatives have been in contact and there's an expectation the two sides will eventually work out a long-term deal, even if the Broncos use the franchise player designation again before the March 9 deadline to continue to negotiate. The Broncos have used the franchise tag on players such as Ryan Clady, Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller before each signed a long-term deal.
But re-signing draft picks is more of anomaly of late. From 2011 to 2017, Denver drafted 54 players who are/were eligible for a second contract and have signed six to multi-year deals.
And two of those six contracts -- Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million deal in 2016 and Garett Bolles' four-year, $68 million signing last December -- put the player's average salary among the NFL's top three per year at his position. Miller, coming off a Super Bowl MVP, received the largest contract ever given to a non-quarterback in league history at the time.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and running back C.J. Anderson would be other players on the second-contract list, but neither were draft picks, Harris having arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and Anderson in 2013. Anderson, though, was a restricted free agent and the Broncos matched a multi-year deal from the Miami Dolphins. Players signed to extensions over the last year, such as defensive tackle Mike Purcell and kicker Brandon McManus, were not Broncos draft picks.
It may represent the team's draft struggles between 2015 and 2017 as well as multiple coaching changes, as they cycled from Gary Kubiak to Vance Joseph to Vic Fangio since the end of the 2016 season. In all Simmons is the only player among the 17 players the Broncos selected in the 2015 and 2016 drafts -- the current sweet spot for the second contract -- who has been with the team since he was selected.
In many ways, Simmons is now the test case for how willing the Broncos are to keep a player they drafted.
"Justin's a great player -- we all know that," Fangio said as the season drew to a close. "We love him. He's definitely a guy we want back in all of our plans and we'd love to have him."
For his part, Simmons has made no secret he was willing to bet on himself and play on the franchise player tag in 2020. He's said 2021 is the time for a deal, at his market value, whether it's with the Broncos -- he has said he wants to stay in Denver -- or another suitor.
Asked as the 2020 season ended what he learned playing on the tag this past season, Simmons said: "You learn that it's a business and it's a business on both ends."
The numbers are pretty straightforward: Each of the NFL's current top five safety contracts averages between $14 million and $14.75 million (the Cardinals' Budda Baker) per year. That is the financial neighborhood to keep Simmons, depending on guaranteed money, length of deal and incentives.
And there aren't really, even to the biggest football cynic, any boxes Simmons hasn't checked. He's been named both a second-team All-Pro and to a Pro Bowl over the past two seasons. He has played every Broncos defensive snap in each of the past three seasons and hasn't played fewer than 75% of the defensive snaps since his rookie year in 2016.
He has the smarts and athleticism to play in the deep third in coverage, has lined up at cornerback when the team needed him and plays the run along the line of scrimmage with instinct and physicality. He doesn't turn 28 until November.
And he is one of the team's most active players in the community, having been the Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee as well as the only three-time winner of the Darrent Williams Good Guy award, given each year since 2006 by the Denver chapter of the Professional Football Writers of America for a player who shows professionalism and candor in his dealings with the local media.
After the Broncos' loss to the Las Vegas Raiders to close out the season, Simmons lingered on the field after all of his teammates had returned to the locker room. He stood alone for a few moments, scanning the empty seats and the night sky.
The next day he said: "It's still a little bit raw emotionally for me, so I want to make sure I'm choosing my words wisely, but I was kind of just reminiscing and taking it all in. At first, I was mad about the loss and just was looking around and looking at the empty stadium. Just thinking about Broncos country and the growth that I've had throughout my career, and just kind of taking it all in. Just not really sure what the future holds in terms of all the contract stuff that's going on. I just was taking everything in -- the loss, my teammates, Broncos country. I was just embracing it."