ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The biggest highlight of training camp for the Denver Broncos so far came when Justin Simmons deflected a Russell Wilson pass and his sidekick at safety made a diving interception and celebrated by punting the ball toward the cheering crowd.
Only, this time it wasn’t veteran Kareem Jackson but third-year pro Caden Sterns, who’s been carving out a bigger role in Denver’s defensive packages, especially in nickel and big nickel, which often features three safeties.
Sterns might even unseat Jackson for the starting job.
Jackson has started 61 of a possible 66 games in his four seasons in Denver, including all 17 a year ago when his 94 tackles were the most in his 13 NFL seasons. At age 35, however, Jackson found free agency quiet and he re-upped with Denver in mid-May for $2.7 million this season.
Jackson still may see extensive action on early downs this season, but Sterns has earned more playing time — so long as he can stay healthy.
In 20 career games, Sterns has been highly efficient, collecting 44 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions and nine pass breakups. But he played in just five games in 2022 before a left hip impingement ended his season early.
He returned to action this offseason and has been a regular on the highlight reel.
“Caden is going to be a heck of a player for a long time. And I’m not just saying that to say that,” Simmons said. “I mean, he’s smart, he understands, he knows how to break down what he’s seeing, he knows how to communicate really well. I think all of those things are tangibles that you need in order to be a great player.”
Their stacked secondary is the Broncos’ biggest strength, led by Simmons at safety — his six interceptions tied for the league lead last year despite playing in just 12 games — and star cornerback Patrick Surtain II, as Denver aims to reverse a seven-year slide in 2023 under new head coach Sean Payton.
For that to happen, Simmons said the secondary has to up its game even more “and Caden is a big part of that.”
Jackson aims to play a major role himself.
“For some reason, it seems when you get a certain age, they always think the cliff is coming,” Jackson said. “It’s my job to come out and prove them wrong.”
Even if he ends up with a reduced role, Jackson said he’ll always help out Sterns, however.
“I still love Caden,” Jackson said. “Obviously, competition is competition. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to turn my back on Caden.”
Sterns appreciates Jackson’s professionalism but said he’s not just competing for a starting spot this year but to stamp himself as one of the league’s rising star safeties: “So, I compete against everybody. But when it comes to the room that we have, it’s nothing but love.”