The Denver Broncos have been quite active during the first week of free agency. General manager John Elway leads with the philosophy that his team will fill holes with veteran free agents, and then they’ll take the best players available (regardless of position) in the NFL draft.
The Broncos had weak spots they needed to mend, and that’s precisely what they’ve done so far in free agency.
Adding the likes of strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders could make the Broncos an even more dangerous team in 2014.
They want to get back to the Super Bowl this season, this time with a different outcome. Denver has about two years left with quarterback Peyton Manning, and they need to do everything in their power to win a championship.
With around $30 million to spend in free agency, the Broncos had no problem finding the right talent at the right price.
After the press conference announcing that Sanders had joined the Broncos, Elway gave a private interview with some in the Denver media. I was among that small group that talked to Elway, and he spoke about his team’s progress in free agency.
“We had a bunch of cap space going into this year. Obviously, with Champ’s [Bailey] situation and then [Chris] Kuper retiring it gave us more cap space. So we had plenty of cap space. That’s why the misnomer of us ‘winning now’—sure we want to win now but we’re also setting ourselves up [for the future]. We got four football players for three [years] or longer contracts and they’re all young, except for DeMarcus [Ware]. We really feel like we got better. There’s no question we’re trying to win this year, but we’re also trying to get a good base to build a good football team for a long time.”
Let’s take a look back on what they’ve done so far.
Ward is exactly the type of player the Broncos need on defense. The strong safety position was primarily manned by fan-favorite Duke Ihenacho in 2013. Ihenacho is a hard-hitter, but the young pro struggled in coverage and was exposed by veteran quarterbacks.
Adding Ward into the mix gives the Broncos an upgrade at that position. Like Ihenacho, Ward is a violent hitter who can intimidate opponents. However, Ward is not a liability in coverage. He’s smart enough to diagnose plays quickly, and Ward’s athletic enough to arrive at the ball in a hurry.
Ward was one of the first players signed in free agency across the NFL. Elway says early flurry of activity in free agency was to be expected.
“Was I surprised by it? No. I think there’s always a little bit of a flurry. That’s why for us—and for me—until you get started you really never know where the numbers are going to be. So that’s what you have to wait and see. You can budget all you want until you figure out where the market is going to set. The market sets the numbers.”
When the Broncos couldn’t work out a deal with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they quickly signed Talib. The former Patriots corner was arguably the best player at his position on the open market at that time.
Jeff Legwold, from ESPN.com, recently wrote an article highlighting the "arms race" between Denver and New England.
Elway talked about this perceived race.
“You always know that you have to go through New England if you look at their track record over the last 10 years. They’re a team that you’re going to have to be able to deal with. For us to get done what we want to get done you’ve got to be able to beat them. It’s a fun arms race, and we’ll see what happens next year.”
Talib takes over for Rodgers-Cromartie, and he will start opposite Chris Harris. Talib is a more physical player, and he's also a better open-field tackler. Adding Talib gives them swagger in the defensive backfield they were missing, as he can basically eliminate an opponent’s top target.
The Broncos get a future Hall-of-Fame pass-rusher by adding Ware. They didn’t re-sign Shaun Phillips, and the Broncos needed to find another player who could consistently get pressure on the quarterback. Phillips led the Broncos with 10 sacks in 2013, but Ware could put up better numbers if healthy.
Ware only had six sacks last year as he fought through a painful elbow injury. Elway said he loves the addition of Ware.
“We feel like [Ware] has got a lot of football left ahead of him. He was really banged up last year. I always like getting guys that are future Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulder.”
In addition to what he can do on the field, Ware can also serve as a mentor to linebacker Von Miller. Elway sees value in that as well.
“I just think with the way he practices and what DeMarcus knows about pass-rushing—he’s going to be a huge influence on Von. Plus, with DeMarcus coming here [opponents] still have to worry about Von on the other side. They’re going to have to figure out who they want to focus on, otherwise they’re going to have seven guys in protection. It’s a good matchup for us.”
With a high-powered offense that can build an early lead, the Broncos defense could be a nightmare matchup for most any team they face in 2014.
The offense gets an upgrade at the wide receiver position with Sanders in the fold. Sanders has the speed to get on top of the defense in a hurry.
Introducing Sanders to the media at the team’s Dove Valley headquarters, Elway noted a unique stat about his new wide receiver.
“He’s a guy that has had a tremendous career so far, and we think that he’s only scratched the surface. So we have great expectations of Emmanuel and really think he’s going to come in and add a tremendous amount to the offensive side. He had 67 receptions last year, 740 yards, six touchdowns. An interesting stat was he caused more missed tackles—15—than all but three NFL wide receivers in 2013. So that shows you what he can do with the ball after he catches it.”
Sanders had been bothered by foot injuries during the first two seasons of his pro career. However, over the last two seasons he’s played a full 16-game schedule. Elway spoke about the injury concerns for Sanders.
“He’s played 11 games in 2011 and 16 games [each] in the last two [seasons]. Obviously there were some rumors out there about his feet but when ‘Greek’ [head trainer Steve Antonopulos] comes in and says ‘he’s good to go,’ then he’s good to go.”
In addition to helping out as a receiver, Sanders also has the ability to be a return man on punts and kickoffs. Elway had a few reservations about that idea.
“Possibly, yeah. We’ll look at that. A lot of the time you don’t want a guy that valuable back there returning, but right now he’s the one we have on our roster.”
Sanders has 11 career receiving touchdowns. Taking the place of Eric Decker in Denver's offense, it’s not out of the question to think he could have 11 touchdowns in 2014.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell
The Broncos decided to bring one of their free agents back in WR Andre Caldwell. Going into free agency, the Broncos seemed content to let all of their own free agents test the open market. Elway knew the team could lose a few key players with that strategy.
“I’m very happy for them [Decker, Zane Beadles, Wesley Woodyard, etc.] because they’ve all done very well. That’s why I say ‘good for them.’ I think it’s good for them that they’ve been able to reap the rewards with the contracts that they’ve all received. We’re going to miss them. That’s the hard part about this business is having to let players like that go. When you look at the contracts they all got, I’m extremely happy for all of them.”
Caldwell sticks around as veteran depth. The addition of Sanders may hinder Caldwell’s opportunity to compete for more playing time. Caldwell knows the system, but he’s likely set in the same role he had last year.
It’s important to note that Caldwell can play both outside or in the slot. He’s insurance in case there’s an injury to Sanders or Wes Welker.
The Broncos are still in a Super Bowl window. So long as Peyton Manning is under center, this team will be contending for Super Bowl titles.
Elway talked about the complexities of building to "win now," while also keeping an eye on building for the future.
“That [signing younger players] goes to show you it’s not [only] for now. We want young football players who are going to be here for a long time. [They’re] still young in their career and continue to get better. The age thing is big, and that’s one thing we’ve had some success with. We’ve been able to plug in the right guys—that have been older guys—into the right spots. That’s usually been around training camp or if something were to happen. Still the base is to try to get as young as we can with the best football players we can.”
The Broncos aren’t done in free agency, but their progress so far has helped them gain clarity when putting together a draft board. Elway is happy with the progress.
“Yeah, it’s been good. We took care of a lot of needs that we had, so we can go into the draft and pick the best players available.”
Whatever the Broncos do next will certainly give us clues as to how much success they could have in 2014.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.