As NFL minicamps are underway and the dust begins to settle after one of the most productive offseasons in history, it's time to take stock of what the Denver Broncos have accomplished since the conclusion of the 2011 season, which saw their first playoff appearance in six years.
The Broncos have certainly been major players in the offseason, captivating national attention with blockbuster trades, like that of Tim Tebow, and unprecedented free-agent signings, like that of Peyton Manning.
Combine that with a laundry list of additional free-agent signings, as well as the acquisition of seven new draft picks, and the Broncos are already a much different team than fans saw in January.
The following slides rank the five best moves the Broncos made during the offseason, as well as the five worst moves the Broncos made during the offseason. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments and thanks for reading along.
Let's start with the bad news first.
Coming in at No. 5 on the worst moves of the offseason is the failure to re-sign fullback Spencer Larsen.
Sure, when the Broncos placed Larsen on the injured reserve list in January, they were a very different team than they are now. Still, the Broncos never really made any strong push to retain the versatile Larsen, and now that the team is built to function in an entirely different capacity than they did with Tim Tebow as quarterback, a bona fide fullback such as Larsen could have proved very valuable to Peyton Manning and the new offense.
Unfortunately, the (guess who?) New England Patriots quickly stepped up and signed Larsen away on March 22. Given the Patriots' propensity to utilize players in multiple positions, Larsen was undoubtedly very attractive to them, being the first player to start on both offense and defense in the same NFL game (linebacker and fullback—November 16, 2008) since 2003. Given the Broncos lack of depth at linebacker, Larsen could have proved valuable as an emergency defender, if all else failed.
Hopefully, Larsen's departure won't come back to bite the Broncos in the end, but it always hurts to lose such a versatile player the caliber of Spencer Larsen.
The next four slides, and the top four worst moves the Broncos made in the offseason, all come from the 2012 NFL draft. They could almost be placed in any order, except I feel pretty strongly that No.1 is truly worst of the bunch, but we'll just take them chronologically, to avoid any confusion.
With the Broncos on the clock at pick No. 25 in the first round, they elected to trade back rather than select a top defensive tackle, as many had predicted that they would, or even the best player on the board, which many felt was LB Dont'a Hightower. Instead, they acquired a fourth-round pick and slid back to No. 31, while the (guess who?) New England Patriots promptly selected Hightower.
Trading down wasn't bad in and of itself. However, based on the subsequent moves Denver was about to make, it would have made more sense to go ahead and select Hightower at No. 25—especially considering that Denver will be thin at linebacker with D.J. Williams suspended for at least 6 games and the fact that they used a seventh-round pick on a linebacker of far inferior ability than they could have had in Hightower.
Picking up an extra fourth-round pick was nice, but missing out on a talent like Hightower could end up costing them in the long run.
Shortly after trading down to No. 31, the Broncos then traded out of the first round altogether, moving back to No. 36 and swapping fourth-round picks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Again, trading back wasn't the worst move here, but besides the Broncos biggest needs being on defense, particularly on the line, it was also known that they would need to shore up their stable of running backs, especially with the questions surrounding Knowshon Moreno.
Some had speculated that Denver should look to draft Boise State running back Doug Martin—precisely who the Bucs selected at No. 31.
Given what would ultimately transpire and the fact that the Broncos chose instead to go after a less reputable back in later rounds, it's a "hope-for-the-best" type of situation to see whether the gamble pays off in the long run.
The Broncos finally made a selection in the 2012 draft more than 24 hours after it began, and to the surprise of almost everyone, it was defensive tackle Derek Wolfe from the University of Cincinnati.
Although Wolfe appears to be an excellent specimen of an athlete (295 lbs, 6'5", 5.01 40), and to his credit, even though he appears to enter the league with a chip on his shoulder, truly believing that his should have been a first-round pick, almost everyone agrees this was a bit of a reach.
While Wolfe said he thought that he'd probably be heading to Baltimore, the team he's had the most contact with, the Ravens, picking one spot ahead of Denver at No. 35, elected to pass on Wolfe (incidentally, they chose DE Courtney Upshaw instead, a much more highly touted player the Broncos ended up passing on twice).
Again, Wolfe seems to be a quality player, and all indications are that he will turn out to be a decent pro, but with an additional pick in that same round, and Wolfe on almost no one's radar, there was probably more value to be had with the Broncos' first pick in 2012.
With the Broncos already having made several head-scratching moves in the 2012 draft, the ultimate punch in the gut came when they selected running back Ronnie Hillman in the third round. The pain of the pick wasn't that it was Hillman, or that it was the third round, but that the Broncos traded up 20 spots in order to do it.
The move cost the Broncos the fourth-rounder they had acquired by trading out of the first round at No. 25. Even worse, had the Broncos waited until their own third-round pick, Hillman likely still would have been on the board. Reaching again, the Broncos cost themselves the player they sacrificed first-round talent for in order to obtain, only to give it right back in order to take Hillman.
Again, by all appearances, Hillman looks to be a quality player—a shifty scat-back with genuine flight speed which the Bronocos haven't seen in several years. He could potentially prove huge dividends operating in an offense coupled with Peyton Manning. Potentially. However, Hillman has high expectations to live up to, much more than just any third-round draft pick, given the price the Broncos paid to select him.
All of that said, the Broncos still escaped the 2012 draft with several quality players who could possibly contribute right away and a quarterback understudy for Peyton Manning to mentor. So on that positive note, let's move on to the five best moves the Broncos made this offseason.
And now for the good news.
The removal of Brian Xanders was essentially addition by subtraction. Xanders served as the Broncos' "general manager" under three different head coaches but never really had any true power. Although he certainly offered input, the buck stopped with Mike Shanahan, Josh McDaniels and John Elway respectively.
In 2012, with John Elway new to his role as Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, Xanders was one of very few holdovers from the McDaniels' era, probably in an attempt to provide at least some consistency among a barrage of change and turnover.
However, the time to part ways with Xanders had come, glaringly so after the Broncos unspectacular 2012 draft. Matt Russell, whom Elway had high praise for, was quickly promoted from director of college scouting to director of player personnel, although there are no immediate plans to name Xanders' successor.
I don't know. Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager is certainly a mouthful, but it also has a nice, winning ring to it.
This move was definitely addition by subtraction.
I know, I know: we all got caught up in the Tebow-mania; he took us to the playoffs; he orchestrated seven miracle, come-from-behind victories; he gave us one of the most memorable postseason victories in team history; and, yes, he's a media lightening-rod who made the Denver Broncos relevant on the national stage for the duration of the 2011 season. But, ultimately, the Broncos are better off without him.
No longer is Denver the laughingstock of the entire NFL—not just because they gave up a fortune to trade back into the first round to draft Tebow in 2010 (when many projected he was a third-rounder at best) and not because they gave him the starting quarterback job over Kyle Orton (twice), but because, by all appearances, he was Denver's "franchise" quarterback of the future.
But no. Instead, Tebow—and the three-ring-circus that goes with him—has shipped out to New York. The Broncos have a real quarterback now—an unquestioned Hall of Famer with a Super Bowl ring and who is arguably one of the best to ever play the game. Now, Denver is immediately in the conversation to contend for a Super Bowl title—and to many, they are the favorite.
Thanks for everything, Tim. All the best. Bon voyage.
The Broncos' passing game left so much to be desired in 2011, it was sad. Not only were they led by the run-first Tim Tebow at quarterback, but their receivers were a hodgepodge of backsliding youngsters, practice squad call-ups, and former first-rounders failing to reach their potential.
However, all of that changed shortly after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. A veritable free agent frenzy ensued, and any free agent receiver who was as yet unsigned, immediately put Denver at the top of their wish list.
The first to sign on was wideout Andre Caldwell, who came over from Cincinnati. The Broncos then added two pass-catching tight ends—a staple position in the Manning-style of offense—Joel Dreessens and Manning's former teammate, Jacob Tamme. Finally, the Broncos also signed Brandon Stokley, himself a former Denver Bronco, as well as a former teammate of Manning's with Indianapolis.
While the Broncos did not draft any receivers, they did sign CFAs Gerell Robinson from Arizona State and Eric Page from Toledo to compete for for spots on the active roster. Add all of these players to the 2011 holdovers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Matt Willis (who must all feel like lottery winners with the addition of Manning), and it's safe to say the Broncos' receiving corps has done a complete 180. Nice moves.
The past few years, the strength of the Denver defense has been their secondary, led by perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey. However, the secondary was also getting a little long-in-the-tooth. With the retirement of safety Brian Dawkins and the release of cornerback Andre Goodman, the turnover has finally arrived.
Consequently, the Broncos looked to the market to fortify their secondary, signing safety Mike Adams, formerly of Cleveland, and cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence, from New Orleans and Buffalo, respectively.
Bringing in these proven veterans means that the quality of play in the Broncos' secondary will not see any drop off. Additionally, there's now still a wealth of leadership to continue to impact the younger players, such as second-year safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter, second-year cornerback Chris Harris, who had an inspiring 2011 and fourth-round draft pick Omar Bolden.
Despite losing several key players that make up one of the team's strongest assets, the Broncos have quietly and effectively retooled. The Broncos' secondary may even be better—it will certainly be deeper—than it was at any point last season.
Without doubt, the absolute best move the Broncos made this offseason was signing free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning. It will unquestionably stand up for all time as the biggest free-agent signing in Broncos' franchise history—and possibly even the entire NFL.
Manning is already on the short list of the all-time greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and he has single-handedly changed the way offense is played in the NFL. Not only does Manning hold numerous NFL records, own a Super Bowl ring, immediately make the Broncos relevant as favorites to win on the field (rather than just relevant for controversial media stories), but Manning also comes to Denver thirsty for more.
Despite his one Super Bowl victory, he has had far more seasons where he has come up just short—either deep in the playoffs or in the Super Bowl, itself—and Manning is hungry to get more rings before his time is over.
Teamed up with John Elway, also on the same short list of all-time great QBs who won multiple Super Bowls after the age of 36. If anyone knows how it can be done, it's Elway. The partnership is poetic, and given the surrounding quality acquisitions, the Broncos—instant contenders—are poised to make a run at the title.