How the Denver Broncos Built a Super Bowl Contender
The Denver Broncos are days away from competing in the franchise's eighth Super Bowl on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET. With hopes of winning their third in the last 20 years, the Broncos have been a consistently good franchise over that time frame.
The 14-4 Broncos are 5.5-point underdogs to win their first championship since the 1998 season, per Odds Shark. While winning Super Bowl 50 would forever change how we view this current iteration of the team, how it was built to be a Super Bowl contender is also important. The process of fielding the right front office, coaching staff and roster takes years to execute. Like the Carolina Panthers, Denver got it right, even if its formula is unique.
From the top to the bottom of the roster, we're going to break down how the Broncos constructed their Super Bowl squad. The resources and decisions that went into building this team led to the right mix. From free-agency spending to draft-pick allocation, it took a special blend of luck, evaluation talent and quality development.
How this team was built is important to study but difficult to replicate. Let’s take a look at what made the 2015 Broncos a Super Bowl contender.
Front Office Personnel
It's amazing how one individual can make such a massive difference in the NFL. Of course, it's never just one person who is the sole reason for success, but everything does start at the top of an organization. John Elway was not only one of the best players of all time for the Broncos from 1983 through 1998, but his role as an executive has been similarly fruitful.
Since Elway was named executive vice president of football operations, the Broncos have gone 58-22 in the regular season. Tack on another five playoff wins and two Super Bowl appearances, and his reign has been extremely successful to this point.
Elway was also named general manager in 2014. That gave him complete player personnel power, although it is likely he had significant say prior to the appointment. Since 2011, when Elway was hired, he has brought in tremendous talent.
In 2011, the Broncos drafted current linebacker Von Miller and tight end Virgil Green and then signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as an undrafted free agent. Defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson joined running back Ronnie Hillman and linebacker Danny Trevathan in 2012. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, center Matt Paradis and cornerback Bradley Roby were starters added in 2013 and 2014.
We'll get into free agency in a few slides, as that's another area where Denver has struck gold several times. But it all started in the draft for the core of this team.
A Risky Coaching Change
The Broncos had much of their success under John Elway as an executive with John Fox as the head coach. Despite going 46-18 in the regular season from 2011 through 2014, the Broncos and Fox mutually parted ways last offseason. Fox left the team with the highest regular-season win percentage in team history.
But Elway had concerns about how the team played in big moments under Fox. He made a bold decision to change directions and hire Gary Kubiak. This led to changes at offensive and defensive coordinator as well.
It turns out that hiring Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was the best move the team could make. Phillips has always been a top-tier defensive coach, and he worked magic with the Broncos unit in 2015. It is by far the best defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
Switching to a 3-4 front was risky but paid off. This defense led the team to the Super Bowl. Even just two years ago, that statement would have seemed unlikely.
Great coaching made it happen.
Few teams rely solely on the NFL draft to find talent, as free agency is a valuable way to augment the roster. The Broncos were able to take a massive leap by striking gold multiple times in free agency. It began with signing Peyton Manning in 2012 off his neck surgery.
In Manning's first three seasons with Denver, he completed 67.7 percent of his passing attempts. He also averaged 4,954 yards, 44 touchdowns and 12 interceptions a year. Despite his dramatic dip in effectiveness this season, Manning's signing with Denver pushed this team to be ultra-aggressive with free agents in recent years.
In 2014, Denver snagged impact free agents such as receiver Emmanuel Sanders, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware. This past offseason allowed the Broncos to sign left guard Evan Mathis. These deals wouldn't have made as much sense if the Broncos weren't pushing to win with Manning right now.
But each major signing has worked out perfectly. It's rare for every free agent to end up being productive, but this franchise has made smart investments.
Eleven of Denver's 22 starters in Super Bowl 50 came via free agency. The rest of their starters have been drafted or signed as undrafted free agents since 2010. They have the right balance between veterans and young professionals.
Deep Playmaker Corps
When the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning, they knew he would need significant talent around him to make the offense dangerous. Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis have helped this offense stay dangerous over the past few years. In years prior, it was Wes Welker and Julius Thomas helping spread the field.
Manning isn't able to carry this team like he once did, and teams have adjusted to it by playing the run more fiercely. Despite Denver's offense bogging down to the 19th-best scoring unit, it has a deep playmaker corps.
Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Sanders form one of the best duos in the NFL. They complement each other and get open quickly for Manning. It's imperative Manning has talent like Thomas and Sanders because he has such a quick throwing process at this stage in his career.
The Broncos tailbacks haven't had the success the team hoped for in 2015. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 1,583 yards on 359 carries—a respectable 4.4 yards-per-carry average. Any expectations that one would emerge as a star were misguided, but they are a functional pair.
Remarkable Defensive Front Seven
A major reason why the Broncos defense is so dominant is the defensive front seven. Led by All-Pro pass-rusher Von Miller and Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware, this unit is ferocious. The defensive unit allowed the fewest yards per game and the fourth-fewest points per game.
Despite some concerns before the season, Miller and Ware transitioned to a 3-4 defense without any issues. Miller responded especially well and has cemented himself among the best two or three defensive players in the NFL. He's poised to earn a massive contract this offseason or at least the franchise tag if nothing long-term materializes.
In just five seasons, Miller already has 60 career sacks. He's tied for 23rd among active players, and only J.J. Watt has more sacks at the same age. Miller is in the first half of a Hall of Fame-type career.
Ware is no slouch, though. The 33-year-old has posted 17.5 sacks in his last two seasons and has been excellent in the playoffs this year. The two complement each other and were the main reason the Broncos overcame the New England Patriots in the conference championship game.
Ware knows just how important his group's job is, as he indicated to ESPN.com's John Clayton:
When you have rushers like me and LB Von [Miller], you have quarterbacks that get the ball out so fast. It sort of messes up the timing. I'm talking about how it sort of goes hand in hand when you have good corners, when you have good pass-rushers, one guy's buying more time for the other the guy, or creating pressure that creates those big plays, or they're giving us enough time to get to the quarterback, even if it's a blocking situation when they have a seven-man block up scheme. They bring that tenacity to the back, the grit.
Even Denver's non-pass-rushing linebackers have done their job and done it well. Middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall have been excellent young players. This linebacker unit is second to none in talent because of their development. They've combined for 220 total tackles in 2015.
In front of the linebackers is the young trio of defensive linemen. Fourth-year studs Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have also welcomed the transition to a 3-4 defense. They've broken out to be significant factors in the Broncos' present and future.
Deep Secondary Talent
Not only do the Broncos have the best linebacker corps in the NFL, but their secondary is the best as well. Just two teams had more passes defensed in 2015, but Denver was at the top with 23 interceptions. It is the only team with this type of depth at cornerback and safety.
While Chris Harris Jr. is one of the best undrafted free agents ever as Denver's No. 1 cornerback, it has two other high-end cornerbacks. Second-year cornerback Bradley Roby is a shutdown playmaker on his own, and Aqib Talib is the perfect second boundary cornerback.
The addition of Talib gave this unit the physicality it needs. Harris can switch between slot and boundary with Roby. Offensive coordinators have a difficult time finding a favorable matchup because each has been playing at a high level in Denver.
The Broncos safeties are solid role players too. Strong safety T.J. Ward is limited in coverage, which caused backup David Bruton to be a super-sub in obvious passing situations until he was lost for the season with an injury. Ward excels in his role, though, with his ability to act as another linebacker near the line of scrimmage.
Free safety Darian Stewart was also brought in via free agency to provide veteran stability. Stewart is a good single-high safety who helps provide peace of mind to the cornerbacks in front of him. While he isn't a flashy player, he was a bargain signing for just two years and $4.25 million.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.