Denver Broncos: Making the Case That Denver Is the Team to Beat in the AFC

DJ SiddiqiCorrespondent IIIMarch 15, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: John Elway, Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, begins to celebrate with head coach John Fox as the clock runs out during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 30, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 38-3. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

It's three days into the free agency period, and the Broncos have made a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined just four days prior.

Within the first three days of free agency, the Broncos have filled gaps and improved depth with the signing of several players through free agency.

Thus far, the Broncos have signed the best slot receiver in the game in Wes Welker, they've signed the Chargers' best offensive lineman from 2012 in Louis Vasquez, signed a young cornerback with talent in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and brought in a former Pro Bowler in Stewart Bradley and a gigantic defensive tackle with the ability to clog up the middle in Terrance Knighton.

So much for the Broncos signing maybe one impact free agent and filling the rest of their roster holes through the draft, right?

There are many story lines to interpret and dissect from the Broncos' activity during the beginning of free agency.

One of these story lines are the Broncos' approach. It's clear that John Elway and company are aiming to win now. Yes, a lot of these free agents are young. In fact, with the exception of Welker, all of these guys are under 30.

However, if you're a team looking to build towards the future, rarely do you strike through free agency as the Broncos have.

Another signal pointing towards the "win-at-all-costs" now approach are the lengths of the contracts given to the aforementioned free agents.

Vasquez: 4 years, 23.5 million, 14 million guaranteed

Welker: 2 years, 12 million, fully guaranteed

Knighton: 2 years, 4.5 million, $500K signing bonus

Rodgers-Cromartie: 1 year, 5 million 

Bradley: 1 year, 1.1 million, 200K signing bonus

With the exception of the 25-year-old Vasquez, all of these guys were signed at a maximum of two years. Normally with guys the ages of Rodgers-Cromartie and Knighton (both being 26), you'd see a four-year contract given.

But with Peyton Manning on the verge of turning 37 years old later this month, the Broncos are clearly setting their sights on a "two-year window" with Manning's future being uncertain after 2014 where he will be 39 years old following the end of the 2014 season.

Secondly, Denver is getting better with a vengeance.

They were 13-3 last year, with the best record in the AFC and the NFL itself. However, the Broncos lost in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round.

There is no doubt that made Elway (who had experienced his share of heartbreaking defeats during his NFL career) and the Broncos hungry following such a fantastic regular season that culminated in a disappointing playoff run.

Nabbing Wes Welker—the best receiver on the Patriots, who happen to be Denver's biggest threat within the conference—along with a guard entering his prime coming from the divisional rival Chargers and three guys who have a history of talent or untapped potential send the message that you're trying your damn best to win right now.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important point in all of this. 

Yes, the Broncos appear to have gotten better on paper with these signings. Yes, the Broncos were the best team in the AFC during the regular season in 2012. Yes, it is only mid-March, free agency is still continuing and the draft is more than a month away from taking place.

But it's safe to conclude this—the AFC is a weak conference.

When you look from division-to-division, from East all of the way to the West, you see three legit elite teams—the Broncos, the Patriots and the under-the-radar Texans.

In the East, the Dolphins may make the playoffs if their major free agency signings don't completely backfire on them. The Jets are in a huge salary-cap mess and plan on having a quarterback competition amongst Mark Sanchez, David Garrard and perhaps the recently cut Kevin Kolb. Let's not even talk about the Bills.

In the North, the Browns are the Browns, the Bengals are a slightly above average team who have a ways to go before being considered "elite," the Steelers are in the event of rebuilding a winning team by cutting aging stars and the Ravens are in a similar position coming off of a Super Bowl championship the previous season.

In the South, the Jaguars and Titans won't be improving any time soon and the Colts are a team that overachieved last year due to a porous schedule and a lot of things going their way. They've overpaid players through free agency already. 

And finally in the West, the Raiders are a joke, the Chargers may surprise—key word being surprise—and the Chiefs are slowly attempting to rebuild through the hiring of Andy Reid and the acquisition of Alex Smith at quarterback.

When you put all of the pieces together, although we're six months away from the NFL season, the Broncos have the makings of being the team to beat again in the AFC.

Let's just hope Rahim Moore and Jacoby Jones aren't involved in the most pivotal play of the season for the second consecutive year.