The Denver Broncos suffered a terrible end to their 2012 season, and John Elway and the front office are determined not to let it happen again.
And how did they show that? By going out and making genius free agent moves.
Denver signed Wes Welker and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on cheap deals while signing offensive lineman Louis Vasquez to another deal not worth a ton of money. Welker is one of the league's best receivers, while Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the most talented corners in the league. Vasquez can be a key cog in Denver's strong offensive line, which has a crucial job: to protect Peyton Manning.
Oh, and none of those guys signed for more than $6 million per year.
Welker wasn't wanted and was, in a way, disrespected by the New England Patriots. To solve that problem, he went to Denver. The Broncos are a perfect fit for Welker, and a lot of that is because of Manning. Welker thrived with Tom Brady and works very well with good quarterbacks, and Denver's quarterback is better than good.
Manning throws a lot of short passes, and he is dead-on accurate on short throws. Despite his size, Welker isn't afraid to go over the middle and take a hit, which is always good. If Manning feels like a receiver is open, he will throw it to him. If he sees Welker over the middle, chances are he'll throw to Welker.
Welker developed great chemistry with Brady, who was outraged about Welker signing with Denver (via Pro Football Talk). While you may have the impression that he's mad at Welker, he was certainly not happy with how the Patriots let Welker walk without making an effort to sign him.
Manning is known for developing good chemistry with receivers and making them better, something he excelled at doing with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. He likes his receivers and makes them happy by giving them the ball, and he is going to love having Welker.
According to multiple sources, Elway asked for Manning's approval before chasing Welker, and he got Manning's approval. That means Manning and the Broncos want Welker, as he will be great in Denver as the slot receiver.
And that's something Manning recognizes.
Welker was targeted 174 times, or 10.9 times per game. He caught 118 of those passes for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns to follow up a season in which he caught nine touchdowns and racked up 1,569 receiving yards. If Denver can get similar production from Demaryius Thomas (1,434 receiving yards) and Eric Decker (13 receiving touchdowns), they will be unstoppable on offense.
On defense, they will be great as well. Denver was the only team to be in the top four in total offense and defense, and while the secondary struggled in the playoffs, Denver still has a great defense. They were third in total defense and fourth in opponent points, supporting an explosive offense by allowing just 18.1 points per game. And now, because of the Rodgers-Cromartie signing, they are better.
Rodgers-Cromartie has the raw size, speed and talent to succeed, and he can do that in a winning environment opposite Champ Bailey. Rodgers-Cromartie struggled in Philadelphia and took plays off, which was a surprise considering how well he did in Arizona when he made the Pro Bowl.
However, playing on the outside again in Denver can revitalize his career. Chris Harris will be a nickel back in 3-3-5 nickel packages and will rotate with Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie in Denver's normal 4-3 scheme while the Broncos have two safeties back. When opponents use three receivers, Harris will be in the slot while Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie, both talented cornerbacks with the potential to shut receivers down, take the outside.
Rodgers-Cromartie can definitely be great in Denver, and he can be great for just $5 million.
If Rodgers-Cromartie doesn't pan out in Denver, the Broncos can let him walk after one year. If he does, the Broncos can lock him up long-term and use him as Bailey's long-term replacement on the outside. Winning should motivate Rodgers-Cromartie, and it could lead to something great.
The only thing this offseason that hasn't been great for Denver is Elvis Dumervil's contract situation. Dumervil was released because Denver couldn't fax in the new contract in time, according to multiple sources. According to Gregg Rosenthal, it cost the Broncos $4.87 million in dead money.
Dumervil is likely to be playing somewhere else in 2013, but the Broncos still could sign Dwight Freeney or another defensive end. Manning wants Freeney as the two were teammates in Indianapolis. Freeney has 107.5 career sacks, and at 33-years-old, he isn't done yet. Freeney had 8.5 sacks in 2011, and he could be a valuable veteran presence in the locker room that seemed to lack focus in the playoffs.
There are pass-rushers out there, and Denver is a good place for them to sign. The Broncos will get someone to help out the pass rush and aid Von Miller, who set a franchise record with 18.5 sacks in 2012. Elway and the front office have been brilliant, and with John Abraham, Freeney and more guys out there, it wouldn't be crazy to assume they would make a good move.
And signing a pass rusher would qualify as a good move.
The Broncos already have made a plethora of good moves, headlined by the signings of Welker, Rodgers-Cromartie and Vasquez. Vasquez signed for $23.5 million over four years, and while that is a good amount of money on a long-term deal, there was a reason for the commitment. Vasquez is a great pass blocker, as he surrendered a mere two sacks in 2012. Denver has made protecting Peyton Manning a priority, and signing Vasquez is a great way to prove that.
San Diego's depleted offensive line is only getting worse, and a former contender is on the verge of being completely wiped out. That is largely due to this signing, which will make Denver's offensive line much better and San Diego's much worse. Chris Kuper dealt with injuries and Manny Ramirez wasn't great in 2012, but Vasquez will shore up the offensive line.
While Denver didn't exactly have major needs, Elway went out and made the team better. Denver has a great unit to protect Manning, arguably the best receiving corps in the game. The secondary was shored up, and adding 330-pound Terrance Knighton will push Kevin Vickerson and bolster the defensive line. Stewart Bradley, who can thrive in Denver's 4-3 scheme, has the potential to do well in between Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard at linebacker.
Oh, and the Broncos got those guys cheap. Denver committed $4.5 million to Knighton over two years and $1.1 million to Bradley over one year. Bradley earned a $30 million contract over five years with the Cardinals for his performance in Philadelphia's 4-3, and he recorded 108 tackles in 2008. Knighton doesn't have the stats Bradley has, but he has potential and can serve as a valuable run-stopper.
Those two moves aren't the biggest moves, but they will help. Just like every signing Denver has made, they made sure that Bradley and Knighton fit in its scheme. The Broncos are doing their homework and making smart moves at smart costs.
And it's going to lead to success.
While the Broncos are signing good fits for their schemes, the players are also talented and have enjoyed past success. Elway understands how to run the Broncos, and he is doing it by piecing together a great team with cheap, high-reward signings. The Welker signing may have garnered attention, but it's not a high-risk or expensive deal. None of these moves seem to be on the verge of hurting the Broncos, and they aren't going to be paying for these moves anytime soon.
Why? Because if these signings pan out, it could lead to a Lombardi Trophy in Denver.