Working with the purpose and flair that typified his days as a quarterback, the Broncos' Executive Vice President of Football Operations set out to complete the best defense in the NFL during free agency of 2014. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety T.J. Ward have been worth the money. Cornerback Bradley Roby and undrafted pass rusher Shaquil Barrett arrived a few months later as rookies.
When Elway dumped successful head coach John Fox after another playoff loss last season, the hire of fellow square-jawed old buddy Gary Kubiak got most of the attention. But it was the hire of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips that was truly the difference maker. Phillips coached the Broncos defense in Elway's third Super Bowl appearance as a player and has only improved since.
The Broncos finished a full half yard ahead of the entire league in yards-per-play allowed, continually helping out an offense that couldn't stay on the field. Phillips' group finished first in yards allowed, something the old "Orange Crush" defenses never pulled off. The Seahawks defense, which Elway so admired, finished second. They can watch the Broncos play this Super Bowl from home.
NFL general managers all say they want to "draft and develop." But that's not how Elway brought his Broncos back to the big game. He couldn't afford to wait.
Peyton Manning was the ultimate free agent pickup and his age has undeniably been a factor in the "win now" feel to Elway's decisions. Nearly half (10) of the team's starters were picked up in free agency, with eight of them added since that embarrassing night in New Jersey two years ago. ESPN noted the Broncos has the highest percentage of snaps from free agent pickups than any Super Bowl team in the last decade, and it's not even close.
Elway hasn't just been picking up role players. He's signing his best guys: Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, guard Louis Vasquez, safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders among them. This group of players essentially replaced another successful crop of free agents that helped win the AFC Championship two seasons ago. Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, picked up in late August, was a telling move. No one knows if Mathis will be with the team next season, but Elway wanted to make sure he did everything possible to win now. You never know when it could be your last rodeo.
Let's take a look at how and where Elway built his team:
» The only constant on NFL rosters is change. Only 19 players on Denver's active roster were with the team the last time they made the Super Bowl. That's the same number of players that were added to the team in 2015 alone.
» The 2015 Broncos free agent class was less heralded than the spending spree in 2014, but it has been a huge part of the team. Ten players added this season through veteran free agency or trade (Vernon Davis) are on the roster, including four starters. Guys like guard Evan Mathis, tight end Owen Daniels, defensive tackle Antonio Smith, and safety Darian Stewart have filled in the gaps where Elway's latest draft picks have not.
» Elway's extreme roster makeover was accelerated this season in part because of the team's coaching change. Only Elway's old friend Kubiak could implement the running game Elway wanted. Phillips also looks for different traits than the previous regime. Credit Elway for quickly plugging gaps in the roster with minimal growing pains.
» Von Miller was Elway's first pick as an executive in 2011, which is one reason to believe Elway will never let the No. 2 pick get away. (He's set to be a free agent.) Miller's status as the most complete outside pass rusher of the last five years probably helps his chances to sign a record contract, too.
» Miller is an example of a team-wide trend. Most of Elway's best draft picks are now eligible for free agency. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe just re-signed with the team two weeks ago, and it already looks like a bargain. Underrated defenders Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan could wind up striking it rich in free agency elsewhere while Elway focuses on Miller.
That's the balancing act Elway will try to navigate in the coming months. With Manning set to ride out of town, Elway must start drafting much better or somehow uncover another five-pack of quality free agent starters.