Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager of the Denver Broncos, John Elway, has made some big splashes in free agency over the last few off-seasons. In 2012, he landed the biggest free agent in the history of the NFL, Peyton Manning.
Since then, Elway has continued to display why many view him as the NFL's top closer and executive. In March, Elway outdid himself from both a quantity and a quality perspective, in the free agent class he brought to Denver. His focus was to bring big play-making ability to the offense and to bolster the defense's toughness and physicality.
With the Broncos on bye this week, it's a great opportunity to evaluate how effective Elway's 2014 free agents have been, in albeit a limited sample size. Despite only having 3 games to scrutinize, there have been some obvious, and not so obvious results. Let's get started.
It's always great to find an underrated, yet valuable player in the free agent market and rope them in. It's even more satisfying when it's done at the expense of a divisional opponent. In Sanders, Elway did just that. Although Sanders maintains that the Kansas City Chiefs had yet to make him an official offer, there were reports at the time that Sanders reneged on a deal that had been struck in principal.
There's no doubting, however, that the Chiefs coveted the speedster who spent his first 4 years in the NFL playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sanders ended up signing a 3-year, $15M deal with the Broncos. After deciding to let wide receiver, Eric Decker, walk in free agency, Elway made Sanders his top WR target in the free agent market. At the time, Sanders told the Associated Press this.
"I just feel like I was a better fit here in Denver and it was obvious — they throw the football."
There's no doubting that. After setting a new league record for points scored in a season, with 606, the Broncos, under the leadership of Peyton Manning, have made it clear that they're going to sling the rock. So far, the decision to add Sanders to that aerial assault has paid huge dividends for the Broncos. In just 3 games, he has been targeted 33 times (tied for 4th in the NFL) and has hauled in 25 receptions (1st in the NFL), for 334 yards. He's also rushed the ball twice for 9 yards. The only stat missing from his jacket is a touchdown. He's yet to find pay-dirt in 2014. But that won't last for long.
In the redzone, Manning has shown a penchant for targeting his tight ends thus far. Julius Thomas leads all tight ends with 5 touchdowns, and his backup, Jacob Tamme, has 2. That means that 7 of Manning's 8 touchdowns in 2014 have gone to tight ends. Once teams start keying on that, thinking they've figured out the Broncos' redzone strategy, Manning will burn them with his options on the outside. Sanders' day will come.
With 2-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas, struggling with a foot injury, and Wes Welker's suspension for the first 2 games of the season, Manning has turned to Sanders to gash the opposition. Sanders can do things that no other Broncos wide receiver can do. His pure speed provides the team with a true vertical threat and his quick twitch, short area burst, has helped the Broncos get some yards after the catch. Sanders has fit right in to the team's offensive identity.
SS T.J. Ward
After a dominant 2013 campaign that saw Ward earn both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, he entered free agency as a prized target. Elway made him the Broncos first free agent signing and he did it not long after free agency opened. Ward signed a 4-year, $23M contract, which is relatively team friendly when you factor in his elite talent.
Yes, I used the "e" word. Ward is a special talent at strong safety. He is a pursuing, heat-seeking missile in the box, but can cover as good as any strong safety in the NFL, not to mention his savvy ability to rush the passer on the blitz. Ward's ability to lay the wood is a product of his smash-mouth mindset, which was a trait that drew Elway to him. Physicality and intensity is the name of the game for Ward.
In 2013, Ware graded out at +15.0 via ProFootballFocus.com, which ranked 4th overall for safeties. That mark graded higher than some big names at the position, like Eric Weddle, Jarius Byrd, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The Broncos got a steal in Ward.
And the results have been good thus far. Ward currently ranks 4th on the Broncos, with 16 total tackles. He's also notched a sack, but has yet to haul in an interception. Although he has been tested by opposing quarterbacks thus far, he has held his own and if a reception is allowed, he wraps the ball carrier up for no yards after the catch (YAC). There is no one in the NFL better at the open field tackle.
With a few goal line stands, a safety, and an overall improvement in physicality, the Broncos defense has been talked about a lot in the media. Ward is the man who sets the tone for such a collective edge. And that's exactly why Elway brought him to Denver.
DE DeMarcus Ware
When the Dallas Cowboys released Ware in March, he left the team as their all-time leader in sacks, with 117. Elway began to immediately lick his chops. Ware made Denver his first stop on what he planned on being his first ever free agency tour, but Elway lubed a deal that Ware simply could not refuse. He never left Denver.
Signing a 3-year, $30M contract with the Broncos, Ware immediately began to assimilate into the Broncos locker room. It didn't take long for him to take on a leadership role. In the team's first organized team activities, young Broncos defensive linemen raved about Ware's traits as a leader and his willingness to take them under his wing. From teaching them about offensive linemen's tells, to technique, to his work ethic, early on, Ware displayed one of the primary reasons the Broncos were drawn to him.
After a lackluster, injury-riddled 2013 campaign, many in the NFL world supposed that Ware might be over the hill. Washed up at 32. But with 3 games under his belt, he has shown that he still has a lot of gas left in the tank. With his long arms and elite burst off the snap, Ware currently leads the Broncos in sacks, with 2.5, a feat not easily accomplished with a player like Von Miller on the roster. Between them, they have amassed 4.5 sacks, which puts them on pace for 24 for the season, as a duo.
Playing against an elusive quarterback in each game so far, has stunted their sack production a bit, but don't expect that to last for long. With a long list of pocket QBs left on the Broncos schedule, like Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, Andy Dalton, and Carson Palmer, to name a few, don't be surprised to see Ware and Miller go on quite the run, especially now that Miller seems to have turned the corner with his recovery from a torn ACL.
CB Aqib Talib
After the Broncos released Champ Bailey, and chose not to bring back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they had gaping hole at the cornerback position. That roster weakness was mitigated by the excellent play of Chris Harris, Jr, but he was recovering from a partially torn ACL. As a result, Elway targeted Talib early on in free agency.
Talib signed a 6-year, $57M contract with the Broncos and immediately upgraded the position. Reunited with former college teammate, Chris Harris, Talib fit in early in the Broncos secondary. Talib is one of the few shutdown corners in the NFL. He can take away the opposition's #1 receiver, as he displayed many times in 2013 with the New England Patriots, especially vs the New Orleans Saints when he shut down Jimmy Graham.
Early returns on Talib indicate that the Broncos made the right decision in signing him. He has been a beast. With 5 passes defensed, he has been very disruptive for the Broncos defense. Last week vs the Seahawks, he gave up a long touchdown to Ricardo Lockette, but he had perfect coverage on the play. Russell Wilson simply made an excellent throw. In the 4th quarter, Talib perfectly deflected a pass, which popped up and floated right into the outstretched arms of Harris. Talib's savvy was on full display there and it helped to swing momentum in favor of the Broncos.
Like Ward and Ware, Talib is a big, strong, physical specimen who isn't afraid to mix it up and stick his nose in the action. He's made several key plays in run support and although he'll give his assignment a small cushion at times, he always makes the tackle, if a completion is made. So far, he has been a perfect fit in defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio's, scheme, although some would prefer that Del Rio deployed Talib in press-man coverage more often, rather than zone, and scheme to his players' strengths.
So far, these 4 players, who came to the Broncos via free agency, have each been key in the team's success thus far. At 2-1, the Broncos currently lead in the AFC West. Although the bye came early this year, it may have come at just the right time, following the heavyweight slug-fest in Seattle. That was a truly physical match.
And that's the type of progress John Elway wanted to see. The Broncos never flinched vs the Seahawks, in enemy territory. They went blow-for-blow and although they ultimately fell short, they had more than one opportunity to steal that game on the road. That is a big contrast to the blowout they suffered in the Super Bowl last February.