Since the opening of NFL free agency earlier this week, the Denver Broncos have been relatively quiet, compared to the spending sprees John Elway orchestrated in 2012 and 2014. Those two free agency periods netted the Broncos a whopping five Pro Bowlers and several key contributors, which is remarkable when fully scrutinized.
Elway’s approach in 2015 mirrors what he accomplished in 2011 and 2013. In his first year with the team, he quietly signed running back Willis McGahee—a player most of the league had written off and forgotten about. He went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. However, fans will try to forget the Ty Warren experiment—one of Elway’s biggest free agent failures.
In 2013, Elway splashed a little bit more with the Louis Vasquez and Wes Welker signings, but both players were brought in on relatively team-friendly deals and the transactions weakened a Divisional opponent and a Conference opponent.
Elway’s unheralded free agent moves in 2013 were highlighted by Shaun Phillips, who went on to lead the team in sacks with 10 and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who played at a Pro Bowl level and solidified a secondary weakened by the long absence of Champ Bailey.
Terrance Knighton was also signed that year and he went on to be an integral component to the Broncos Super Bowl run and a big reason the Broncos were so successful in stopping the run last season. Very few in NFL circles expected Knighton, Phillips and DRC to become the difference makers they were.
It’s these type of signings that truly show Elway’s keen insight and vision in the free agent market. Elway is most known for his big free agent signings, but these types are just as key. There’s no question that the Broncos have been relatively passive in free agency this week, but there’s still a lot of time left to see how the dominoes will fall. Based on Elway’s track-record, fans would be wise to trust in him.
If anything, the Broncos approach this year indicates that the team believes the time is now to rely on young players they’ve drafted and developed in-house. With the defection of Orlando Franklin and Terrance Knighton, guys like O-lineman Michael Schofield and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams will be leaned on heavily this upcoming season.
The thought of turning to a second-year player in Schofield, who didn’t dress for a single game as a rookie and Williams, who has underperformed since being drafted in the first round back in 2013, creates apprehension in a big chunk of Broncos Country.
However unproven both players are, it should be remembered that ex-head coach John Fox is a guy loathe to play rookies. He is notorious for favoring his veterans with playing time, unless circumstances give him no choice but to play a rookie. It’s one of the reasons his players love him so.
It’s hard to say what the Broncos have in Schofield because we’ve not really seen him in action, except for a few preseason snaps. However, new head coach Gary Kubiak has expressed optimism in the former Michigan Wolverine. Schofield does fit the zone blocking mold and under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, whose track record of getting the most out of his developmental O-linemen is stellar, perhaps the second-year player can blossom into a rock at right tackle.
As for Williams, there’s no question he’s a physically gifted athlete. But his failure in developing into more than a rotational role player falls on the shoulders of John Fox. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar also has a stellar record in getting the most out of his players.
Williams will benefit tremendously from Kollar’s tutelage and Wade Phillips’ attacking 3-4 defense. He has the power and athleticism to be disruptive in the backfield. He just needs to hone a better motor. It wouldn’t surprise me if the lack of development in many of the Broncos recent draft picks was one of the factors that led to John Fox’s “mutual” dismissal by John Elway.
For young bucks like Williams, Schofield, Matt Paradis and even Ben Garland, the future is now. The time soon comes for them to step up and contribute to the vision Elway had for them when he brought them to Denver.
With a roster that boasted the honor of sending a league-high 10 Pro Bowlers to Arizona, there is no dearth of talent in Denver. The Broncos will be just fine. Guys like Owen Daniels and Vance Walker might be flying under the radar now, but by this time next year, it wouldn’t surprise me if NFLers look back and point to yet another underrated Elway free agent class that paid off in spades for the Broncos.
FREE AGENCY POSITIONAL PREVIEWS
OFFENSE: Quarterback | Running back | Tight end |
Offensive tackle | Offensive guard | Center
DEFENSE: Defensive tackle | Defensive end | Outside linebacker |
Inside linebacker | Safety | Cornerback
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