For the first time in four years, John Elway actually got free agency right. Fans may not know Darian Stewart, Shelley Smith, or Vance Walker in the same way they knew Aqib Talib, Peyton Manning, or Wes Welker. But those lesser known players’ on-field impact could turn out to be just as substantial as that of their big name counterparts.
John Elway often describes his mentality as general manager by explaining his desire to build a team that won’t just win now, but can win “from now on.” By treating free agency the way it’s meant to be treated, perhaps Elway has finally begun living up to that motto.
The NFL’s best franchises build their rosters by drafting well, developing their talent, and using free agency to fill in gaps and add depth. The world champion New England Patriots have become masters of the draft-and-develop model.
All five of the highest paid players currently on New England’s roster were drafted by Bill Belichick. For the Seattle Seahawks, that number is four out of five, the sole exception being recently acquired tight end Jimmy Graham. Yet, of the Denver Broncos’ five highest paid players (total contract value), only two (Ryan Clady and Chris Harris, Jr.) came into the league wearing orange and blue, according to Spotrac.com.
Championship teams are built through the draft. Yet, for the last four years, the Denver Broncos and their general manager have re-enacted the Richard Pryor movie “Brewster’s Millions” every offseason. They’ve spent money like a drunken sailor on shore leave.
Whether it’s $57M for Aqib Talib, $30 for DeMarcus Ware, or $96M for Peyton Manning (the king of all high priced free agents), John Elway could be counted upon in each of the last three offseasons to spend ungodly amounts of money on players at or near the back nine of their careers. Those signings were exciting for fans. They were sexy. But, they weren’t what the Denver Broncos needed.
With this top-heavy roster, John Elway has built a gorgeous house. High priced skill position players like Talib, Ware, and Manning make up the house’s golden siding, and marble doorways. The only problem is John Elway forgot to put in floors. It’s been a house without a foundation of drafted and developed talent.
It’s been a house that lacks depth along the offensive line, and defensive front seven. For as long as the Broncos have spent enormous amounts of money in free agency, this has been a roster incapable of winning a championship. It simply hasn’t had the homegrown heart.
This offseason has been different. Elway has stopped shopping at Prada, and he’s dived face first into the free agency bargain bin. Though, it should be noted, he didn’t do so by choice. The Broncos have racked up such an enormous bill in free agency the past few seasons that they simply don’t have the cash to spend money on even B-level free agents.
Denver had to turn away Kendall Langford, the definition of a “B-level free agent,” because they literally didn’t have enough money to pay him close to market value. If #7 had his druthers, he’d likely have tried putting Ndamukong Suh in a Broncos uniform. Instead, Elway’s been forced to sit on the sidelines.
Largely sitting out this free agency period could wind up paying dividends for Denver’s checkbook. The Broncos spent $34.4M on their first four free agents this offseason. Last year, they spent a nauseating $112.2M on their first four signees. However, good general managers find players who can maximize their production for minimum cost. For the first time in his front office career, John Elway has finally spent money like a good general manager.
At first glance, one might think a lower price tag indicates Denver is getting lower quality players. That simply isn’t the case. So far in free agency, the Broncos have signed seven unrestricted free agents, (tight end Joe Don Duncan was a college free agent). Tight ends Owen Daniels, and Virgil Green were signed to replace Julius Thomas and add depth; safety Darian Stewart to replace Rahim Moore, defensive end Vance Walker to add depth to Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defensive line, guard Shelley Smith to compete for Orlando Franklin’s old left guard spot, and linebacker Steven Johnson to add depth. Most of the Broncos’ signees are as good, or better, than the players they were signed to replace.
According to Pro Football Focus, based on pure film study and metric analysis, Virgil Green is the 11th best tight end in the NFL. Julius Thomas is No. 13. Also according to PFF, Darian Stewart is the No. 30 safety in the league. Rahim Moore is No. 46. PFF gives 3-4 defensive end Vance Walker a +6.8 overall rating. That’s on par with the likes of Justin Tuck and Tommy Kelly.
Owen Daniels is a productive veteran presence familiar with Gary Kubiak’s offense, and willing to sacrifice his body in the run game. He was once described by NFLPA President Eric Winston as a “route running machine.” Shelley Smith is the unknown in Denver’s free agent equation. He’s a five-year NFL veteran who came into the league in 2010 as the sixth round pick of Kubiak’s Houston Texans.
Mile High Huddle’s own Chad Jensen described him as a “competent depth player familiar with Kubiak’s system.” He’ll be asked to compete for reps with Ben Garland. The Broncos invested $5.6M in the 27-year-old journeyman guard. So, Denver fans might have to once again put blind faith in John Elway. That shouldn’t be much of an issue, though. They’ve been doing so since 1983. And in fairness, Elway has provided a great return on that faith, including two Super Bowl titles and six AFC Championships.
In 2012, 2013, and 2014, Broncos fans were told they’d “won free agency.” As they found out time, and time, and gut-wrenching time again, that wasn’t the case. The term “winning” is subjective. You don’t “win free agency” just because you spend the most money. In fact, the best teams in the NFL build their rosters by spending as little as possible in free agency, and investing in homegrown talent. That’s the way to win a championship. Thanks to Denver’s current offseason strategy, they’re moving closer to that goal.
John Elway has been forced to penny pinch this offseason. That’s the best thing that could have happened for the Broncos. His young players will finally be asked to put up, or shut up. No more golden siding. No more marble doorways. It’s finally time to put a foundation on this Broncos roster.
FREE AGENCY POSITIONAL PREVIEWS
OFFENSE: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end |
Offensive tackle | Offensive guard | Center
DEFENSE: Defensive tackle | Defensive end | Outside linebacker
Inside linebacker | Safety | Cornerback
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