At the time, the Broncos were coming off of the myopic Josh McDaniels regime and the general feeling, both in Dove Valley and in the fanbase, was one of apathy. To bring stability and a steady hand to the team, Elway made the signing of head coach, John Fox, his first big decision.
But as the 2011 NFL draft approached, the media and fans alike, hoped that they would catch a glimpse of Elway's big picture for the Broncos, in what type of player(s) he'd select.
Following a 4-12 season in 2010, the Broncos held the No. 2 overall pick. It was a prime opportunity for Elway to select a cornerstone player; one who would allow the Broncos to build a strong foundation as a team, moving forward.
The 2011 draft featured a very top-heavy defensive draft class. Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, and Patrick Peterson all figured into the mix at No. 2. J.J. Watt had a first-round grade by most teams, but if any NFL executive had any idea how transcendent of a player he would become, he would have been in the conversation for top-5, too.
Elway ended up selecting Miller, who went on to become the Defensive Rookie of the Year. In the second round, he picked Rahim Moore and Orlando Franklin. Nate Irving was selected in the third, followed by safety, Quinton Carter and Julius Thomas in the fourth. He also found Virgil Green in the seventh round.
This was Elway's maiden draft as the Vice President of Football Operations and defacto General Manager. Looking at it on paper, he found 6 starters. Maybe even 7, depending on how you look at it.
Green started at tight end in week 15, despite a healthy Thomas. Carter has started games for the Broncos and even this year, when the Broncos began games in their big-nickel sub-package, Carter started. He also started 12 games (including playoffs) as a rookie.
Elway's eye for talent didn't stop in the seventh round. He found Chris Harris, Jr in the great unwashed mass of undrafted players. Harris was the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Two players from Elway's 2011 draft class have made the Pro Bowl (Miller and Thomas), but you could argue that Harris represents the Broncos biggest success story, when it comes to acquiring and developing rookie talent. Harris just signed a 5-year, $42.5M contract extension.
Elway knows how important it is to hit pay-dirt in the draft. But more importantly, how vital it is to effectively develop that talent. When asked about how important it is to re-sign players drafted and developed by the Broncos, and reward them for their efforts, Elway was matter of fact.
“That’s key because we’ve obviously had a lot of success over the last four years," Elway said via the team. "When you win four division titles, you’ve had a lot of success, and as soon as you’ve had that success, it means you’ve got a lot of real good football players on your team. So that’s the battle, is to continue to do that. We’ve got to continue to draft well. We’ve got to continue to retain the guys that we can retain that give us the opportunity to continue to win like this. I didn’t get in here to win part of the time. I want to win all the time. And I think the mentality of the type of guys we have, they have the same mentality. So when you’re good, it’s tough, but we’re going to continue to try to be as good as we can and continue to draft well and try to keep as many as we can, and Chris is a start for us.”
Demaryius Thomas, who was drafted in the first round the year before Elway joined the team, is playing in the last year of his rookie contract, as is Julius Thomas, one of Elway's first draft picks. Broncos fans aren't the only ones pining for news of an extension for the Thomases. Elway hopes to get these two offensive weapons tied up soon, too.
“We have a bunch of guys coming up, and so we’re hoping that we can get everybody. It’s never going to be easy, but Chris was the target to start with and we were thankful to get that done, so we hope that we can continue to do that and keep this team together.”
It won't be easy, as the prolific production of the Thomases has priced them into the stratosphere. Complicating issues for the Broncos is the fact that Julius has missed so many games, because of injury, which muddies the water in terms of evaluating his worth on the open market.
One thing that could help to facilitate a favorable result with Demaryius, are his recent comments that he'd be willing to give the Broncos a "hometown discount" to stay in Denver. Thomas knows how his bread is buttered. Playing with Peyton Manning is the surest way to build career-value and stay in the sunlight. Just look at Eric Decker's situation in New York as a cautionary tale.
Elway's ability to identify talent in the draft has continued to bear fruit. Players like Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Ronnie Hillman, Sylvester Williams, Quanterus Smith, Kayvon Webster, and Bradley Roby are a testament to that, not to mention diamonds in the rough, who went undrafted, like C.J. Anderson, Aaron Brewer and Juwan Thompson.
The jury's still out on arguably Elway's most controversial draft pick; Brock Osweiler, drafted in 2012. With Manning signed through 2016, it's probable that Osweiler will hit the open market, before Manning hangs up his cleats.
The Broncos have made it very clear that Osweiler is being groomed to be their future franchise QB, but the realities of the business side of the NFL could ultimately nullify those aspirations.
Would Osweiler want to re-sign with the Broncos, following the 2015 season, knowing that he'd have to ride the pine for at least one more year? Or would he rather find a team willing to pay a QB groomed and developed by Adam Gase, who backed up a Hall of Famer for four years? We won't know the answer until it happens, but I wouldn't blame Osweiler if he chose to go elsewhere.
Of course, this scenario is predicated on Manning playing out his 5-year deal with the Broncos. But provided he stays healthy, I don't see any reason that he would retire. He still loves football, and most importantly, he loves practice.
Elway's prowess in the draft stands on it's own merit. He has drafted well. But he's also been highly successful in free agency. He lubed and closed the deal that brought Manning, the biggest free agent fish in the history of the NFL, to Denver.
Elway has found great free agent contributors, on team-friendly deals, like Mike Adams, Jim Leonhard, Louis Vasquez, Terrance Knighton, Keith Brooking, Wes Welker and Dan Koppen, to name a few. There's no underestimating how important that is in building a competitive roster.
But lest people should think that Elway got lucky in recruiting Manning to the Mile High City, I submit that it was no easy feat to ink DeMarcus Ware; a sure-fire future Hall of Famer in his own right. But Elway got it done. Aqib Talib was an excellent signing, as well, but getting T.J. Ward on a 4-year, $22.5M deal was the work of the NFL's top closer.
Elway has also proven to be a very astute negotiator, as the Harris extension illuminates. Harris could have found more money on the open market, but once Elway got involved in the negotiations, the deal was quickly finalized.
“Sometimes you get in a logjam and sometimes it’s when people stop communicating or something goes a little bit haywire, then it’s always nice to be able to step in," Elway said, referring to the Harris extension. "As I said, with Mike [Sullivan] and Fred [Lyles] on Chris’ side, it was just a matter of having two competitive guys that want to do well and so to be able to kind of break up the logjam a little bit, it was relatively easy because both sides knew we wanted to get a deal done and it was important to both sides. We were going to figure out a way to get a deal done.”
Elway's detractors have opined that the Broncos fortunes and present successes, will all go the way of the dodo bird when Manning retires. There's no doubt that Manning's contributions to the team have gone a long way towards team's remarkable success.
But 2011 proves that under Elway's leadership, this franchise will find a way to win and be relevant in the post-season. He's built the foundation to support that assertion. If the Broncos could win the division and a playoff game, with Tim Tebow at QB, imagine what they could accomplish with Brock Osweiler in the huddle.
For now, Broncos Country can rest assured that their team is in excellent hands with the Duke of Denver. With a 45-17 regular season record, four-straight AFC West titles and a conference championship, the fruits of Elway's labors tell the story.