AFC West: Peyton Manning

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher often tells veteran players they will have to expend 10 percent more effort in an upcoming offseason than they did in the one before, if they plan to maintain their ability to compete for the same amount of playing time.

Essentially, the message is that the status quo can't be on the agenda, that every time you roll over and hit the snooze button, the guy who wants your job already is out of bed and has put the proverbial nose to the grindstone.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Hyoung Chang//The Denver Post/Getty Images"Just because you were there last year in the [Super Bowl], it doesn't guarantee you anything," Peyton Manning said.
And this week, sprinkled through Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's first public comments in Colorado since the 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, it was fairly easy to discern Manning's theme for the coming weeks and months.

Manning has been known to rattle the cage of a teammate a time or two about what needs to be done, or surprise someone with a pop quiz in the hallway about their responsibilities on a third-and-long. He dropped the word “work" 10 times into his comments in the span of just a few minutes, and that included a couple of references to both “hard work" and “good work."

It was a preview of sorts, because the Broncos will open their offseason conditioning program Monday and the vast majority, if not all, of their healthy players are expected to take part. These are technically “voluntary" gatherings; the Broncos can only declare offseason workouts mandatory for a three-day minicamp in June. But this is "voluntary" -- as in, you "voluntarily waive your right to play any significant snaps when training camp rolls around."

Last season, the Broncos worked off the premise that the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round would be the fuel for the offseason in 2013. That worked, at least until the season's last game, when the Broncos arrived at the Super Bowl seemingly without their mojo in their luggage.

They're hoping disappointment can once again help power them through spring and into summer.

“Just because you were there last year in the game, it doesn't guarantee you anything," Manning said. “It does take a lot of hard work and sacrifice."

Manning, certainly the analytical type when it comes to the game, is also still a big believer in the elusive power of football chemistry -- that somehow teammates who have invested time together will eventually also play better together, particularly when the ride gets bumpy.

“I think forming that chemistry takes time," Manning said. “Certainly working together in the weight room is part of it. [Aqib] Talib getting to know Chris Harris; DeMarcus [Ware] getting to know [Kevin] Vickerson and [Derek] Wolfe and Von [Miller] -- the guys he's going to be rushing with; for me, getting to know [Emmanuel] Sanders. It's not an overnight process. That's something that we have done in the past. I think that's been a big part of some of the wins we've had -- is our offseason work and how guys have spent time together and put the time in together."

In the post-spinal-fusion portion of his career, Manning has always said he would keep playing if he believed he could still compete at the level he wants, and as long as he still enjoyed the preparation as well as the effort it takes physically to get ready to play.

So while the regular season is still a long way off, Manning, having already worked with the team's pass-catchers while at Duke, has made it pretty clear he's ready to get back to business -- and that the expectation is everyone else will be, too.
SteelersAP Photo/David RichardDenver hopes Emmanuel Sanders can not only replace, but also exceed Eric Decker's production.
When the Denver Broncos prepared themselves for free agency, they did what any team in the supply and demand business of roster spots would do: The decision-makers looked at their free agents and assigned each a value.

Then executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said those free agents would be allowed to test the market. And what that often really means is the team believes those players will get more in the open market than it would be willing to pay to keep them.

That turned out to be true for guard Zane Beadles as well as running back Knowshon Moreno and it really turned out to be true for wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker got a five-year, $36.25 million deal from the New York Jets that includes $15 million guaranteed.

The Broncos then signed Emmanuel Sanders, the player who at the moment is Decker's replacement, to a three-year, $15 million deal. The Broncos see Sanders as a more versatile, more athletic player overall than Decker, one who can play both outside and in the slot.

Decker did play in the slot at times in his tenure with the Broncos, but the current regime saw him as an outside receiver only. Sanders has quick-twitch ability with the ball and creates missed tackles with the hope of more catch-and-run yardage.

Both he and Decker have had difficulties at times with drops. But the coming season may, or may not, show how much of Decker's emergence as a receiver with back-to-back 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons had to do with playing in an offense with Manning.

And for his part Sanders will have the chance to show if he can go from a guy whose top two seasons have been 626 yards in 2012 and 740 yards in 2013 to something more.

Manning got his first up-close look at Sanders in recent workouts at Duke University -- where Manning's long-time friend and former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, is head coach. By all accounts Manning came away feeling good about Sanders' potential in the offense.

Or as Manning put it Wednesday morning, before he spoke at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver: "I had a chance to throw with Sanders down there in North Carolina and I'm excited about playing with him."

At first blush unless the Broncos add a bigger receiver in next month's draft, they are smaller, as a group, with the Sanders-for-Decker swap. Decker is 6-foot-3, 214 pounds as compared to Sanders' 5-11, 180 pounds.

Since Manning's arrival two years ago, defensive coordinators routinely talked about the difficulty in matching up with Decker, Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) and tight end Julius Thomas (6-5, 250) in the red zone where Manning can put the ball up for his guys to go get it. That was particularly true from the doorstep with five of Decker's 11 touchdown catches this past season were for three or fewer yards.

The Broncos hope, however, Sanders can win some of those battles with quickness to give Manning the room/opportunity to throw to him in the more confined spaces once the Broncos' offense is inside the opponents' 15-yard line.

Whether he was running across the formation or worked to the side where he lined up, Decker's catches were fairly well dispersed all over the field this past season. He made 34.5 percent of his catches to the offensive right, 41.4 percent to the offensive left and 20.7 percent in the middle of the field.

Sanders, too, would project a similar dispersal given his ability to line up anywhere the Broncos want him to in their three-wide look. The Broncos, though, believe Sanders can do even more after the catch even as the Broncos receivers led the NFL in that category overall last season.

Decker had 47 percent of his catches go for 10 or fewer yards last season, 69 percent for 15 or fewer yards. The Broncos hope Sanders can push a higher percentage of his catch-and-runs toward bigger yardage totals, but for Sanders' part he will have to be ready to play more snaps than he has in the past.

Decker was in the 1,000-snap club last season -- 1,050, or 87 percent of the Broncos plays -- and had 15 games when he played at least 50 snaps. Only Thomas played more than Decker (1,106 snaps) among the Broncos' pass-catchers.

Wes Welker played 770 snaps, or 63.8 percent of the plays, before missing games down the stretch with a concussion and Julius Thomas checked in at 901 snaps (74.6 percent).

The Broncos threw more than the Steelers did in '13, 675 pass attempts as compared to the Steelers' 586, and Sanders played at least 50 snaps in nine of 16 games last season. When the Steelers still had Mike Wallace in 2012, Sanders played at least 50 snaps in five games.

Sanders has played in 16 games in each of the last two seasons, but has never started more than 10 games in any season of his career.

But if things go as the Broncos want, and need them to go, he'll certainly have the chance to change that this time around.
When Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball arrives Monday morning for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program, he can expect to carry the expectations of being a starter as he goes about his business.

A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Peyton Manning said of Montee Ball.
"There is no question with the loss of Knowshon [Moreno] -- who was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate -- that Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him."

Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.

Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.

But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.

Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.

"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
DENVER -- Standing behind a podium perched atop what will be playoff ice for the Colorado Avalanche in the coming days and surrounded by a crowd of Eagle Scouts and those hoping to be, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered his thoughts Wednesday on leadership, work ethic and community service.

He told a football story or two, including one about his first trip into a game-day huddle as the University of Tennessee quarterback. And within all those words was also a clear-eyed glimpse into Manning as a professional quarterback, into what the Broncos face in 2014.

When, in making a point about wrestling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity, Manning told those assembled we must all "learn to thrive on discomfort."

Ah, discomfort. Maybe something on the order of a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, perhaps, or a double-overtime loss in the divisional round a season before. Maybe two playoff trips with home-field advantage, two 13-3 finishes, a pile of team and league passing and scoring records, and no Super Bowl ring to show for them.

Yeah, that’s some professional football discomfort, all right.

The Broncos thrived in the discomfort left from the shocking playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2013. They went on to win the division again and, this time, played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII after a season during which Manning hit career marks in almost every offensive statistical category, including NFL records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The Broncos also became the first team in league history to top 600 points in a season.

That was before the Super Sunday cave-in, a football sinkhole in which the Broncos watched all their title hopes and dreams cascade into the abyss. Most troubling to those in and around the team was the fact after a bad snap on their first offensive play of the game, the Broncos didn’t respond, and one bad play became another and another until they were on the short list of most lopsided Super Bowl losses.

That they didn't rise up and put up a good scrap, make a game of it. The Seattle Seahawks simply looked more prepared, more talented, more motivated -- just more of everything.

Two Januarys ago, when the Broncos lost to the Ravens, John Elway, the team’s chief football decision-maker, said the Broncos should remember 2012 was a good season, but that those with the team couldn’t be "afraid to be honest with ourselves."

Manning even said last season Elway had tried to create "an uncomfortable atmosphere" as the team moved into the 2013 season to make sure all involved remembered the sting of the loss. An atmosphere that seemed to suit the Broncos last season as they piled up the wins and touchdowns.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/John MinchilloThe Broncos stayed busy this offseason, adding key players in free agency to help Peyton Manning and Denver push for another postseason run.
It wasn’t always easy for those in the locker room -- expectations can be heavy when your boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback whom friends describe as the most competitive person to walk the planet, and the starting quarterback isn't far behind, if at all, in that department -- but, as Broncos coach John Fox routinely says, "if it were easy, everybody would be doing it." Winning is hard, an item Elway and Manning always want on the front burner. The burden of expectations gets a little heavier if opportunities to win the season's final game are lost, squandered or both.

Wednesday, in what was his first significant public appearance in Denver since the Super Bowl loss, Manning was in statesman mode, trying to help raise funds for the Boy Scouts in Colorado. His appearance filled the seats on the arena floor of the Pepsi Center.

Before he addressed the gathering, he lauded the Broncos' additions made in free agency -- players like Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward -- and lamented the departures of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno as he tried to leave at least some of the Super Bowl aftermath in the rearview mirror.

"First off, we lost many players and some great friends," Manning said. "It’s been a real pleasure to play the last two years with Champ, Knowshon, Eric, [linebacker] Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper retiring … I’m probably leaving a name or two out. That's the worst part about football. When you form some friendships with these guys and really put a lot of hard work in -- the business side comes into play.

"You have to move forward," Manning later added. "You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team. The 2013 team -- it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further -- try to finish."

This is where the Broncos will begin their trek into 2014: as a team trying to finish what it started, in many ways, when Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Fox enticed Manning to sign in Denver.

They are a talented team with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. They were one of the most active and successful teams in filling needs in free agency. They have worked the draft well in the past three years and once again will carry the label as one of the Super Bowl favorites.

But they are also a team that let two rare title opportunities get away and are now trying to beat the odds to position themselves for another. They will have to deal, again, with the idea that many folks won’t much care what they do in the regular season if they aren’t the team catching the confetti next February.

They will be asked about the Super Bowl, about the window to win a championship closing and about what happened inside MetLife Stadium until they are sick of answering for it all. Truth be told, they might have been sick of it already, even as they dispersed into the offseason, and the wheel hasn't even really started to spin on all of that yet.

Manning himself might be asked to throw less so the offense can be more. To face the realities of age and four neck surgeries and use his remember-when mind to help diversify the team’s attack, not only to help give it a plan B but endorse it in what he calls at the line scrimmage if things don’t go right on another important football afternoon.

To, well, thrive in the discomfort.
John FoxJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJohn Fox, 59, is 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos.
At the start of free agency, John Elway was asked about the chances of the Denver Broncos making the effort to bring back some of their players who were set to test the market.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager said:

“The market sets the prices."

When it comes to NFL head coaches, the market has been set in recent weeks. On Friday, Pete Carroll, 62, signed a three-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks that runs through the 2016 season.

Carroll’s deal had been set to expire following the 2014 season.

Like Carroll, Denver coach John Fox’s contract was set to expire following the 2014 season. And like Carroll and the Seahawks, the Broncos and Fox came together on a three-year extension Friday. Despite some who said the fact things had not been wrapped with Fox meant there was potential trouble on the horizon, both Fox and Elway had consistently expressed optimism a deal would get done.

There were talks at the scouting combine in February, and Elway said at the league meetings in Orlando, Fla., last week that Fox’s deal was “the next thing on the agenda."

The only way a deal wouldn't have gotten done is if one side had simply pushed too hard to win. If the Broncos tried to dig in a little too hard on the money, Fox could have ended up coaching the coming season without an extension. And if Fox’s agent, Bob LaMonte, had pushed too much, also on the money or for too many years, the Broncos might have folded their arms to simply wait and see.

Fox signed a four-year deal worth about $3 million per year in 2011, and he would have received a $1 million bonus had the Broncos won Super Bowl XLVIII in February, but Denver was bullied 43-8 by Carroll's team. And this is where Carroll’s deal comes in. Essentially, welcome to the market being set.

After all, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and looked like a far better prepared team on the way to a 35-point win. Carroll is 38-26 as the Seahawks’ coach and 5-2 in the playoffs.

That is where the fence stands. Win the big trophy as a 60-something head coach, get a three-year extension.

Fox just turned 59 in February, he’s 34-14 with three AFC West titles in his three seasons with the Broncos, and he helped recalibrate the franchise to dig out of the crater that was the 4-12 finish in 2010.

However, the Broncos have also let quality championship opportunities slip through their fingers with a double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to end their 2012 season, to go with February’s title-game rout. Those two games alone, at least from the Broncos’ perspective, could have pushed Fox out of consideration for a three-year extension, and there were rumblings to that effect in and around the team early in the talks. But this is where the Broncos stepped up to get things done.

Again, the market had been set. Seven active head coaches have won Super Bowls, and Fox is not one of them. But Elway has repeatedly said, including last week, he likes the direction the team has gone in the last three years, and that he didn't expect any major hurdles in the negotiations, but also always added he expected the team to take the next step.

To not just play for a title, but to win one. And Fox obviously outlined his plan to get that done to Elway's satisfaction.

Those who know Fox well know he did not enjoy coaching the Carolina Panthers in the last year of his contract there in 2010, when the roster was scraped to the foundation and the Panthers limped to a 2-14 finish. Fox knew for that dismal season that the Panthers had no intention of bringing him back no matter what happened.

But coaching a team coming off back-to-back 13-3 finishes with Peyton Manning at quarterback in the last year of your contract isn't in the same football galaxy of what Fox went through in 2010. And at the league meetings, Fox said the sides were “working on it."

“Really I’m going to coach my rear end off no matter what happens," Fox said. “That’s in people’s hands, and I feel confident something will happen. But either way I’m going to be fine, I’m under contract ... They’re talking and working on it ... Everybody’s got good intentions, we’ll see where it goes."

Where it went is where all involved expected, and they all did what needed to be done to get there.
When the Denver Broncos didn't make wide receiver Eric Decker an offer in free agency, they were making a fairly public admission that they simply wanted to spend their available dollars elsewhere.

And that they could spend those dollars elsewhere to fix some holes in the depth chart and somehow replace Decker in the offense.

For it all to work as they hope, those major investments -- DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib -- will certainly have to lift the defense. But for the plan to go from drawing board to deep in the postseason, preferably a return trip to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will simply have to be right about Emmanuel Sanders.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders had a career-best 67 receptions last season, but the Broncos believe he can do more in their system.
The wide receiver was among their top offensive targets when the Broncos made their wish list before free agency opened. They see him as a versatile, fast, quick-twitch receiver who is ready to benefit from Peyton Manning's presence behind center.

Or as John Elway has put it: “When we looked at him, and I've said this to our guys, too, you saw a guy who has only scratched the surface. He's young with a lot of potential, even on top of what he's already done."

Decker's departure leaves a fairly large gap in what the team did on offense last season. At least in the regular season, anyway. Decker's totals dipped in the postseason, as Manning focused elsewhere, but Manning looked Decker's way 137 times in the regular season. Demaryius Thomas was the only Broncos receiver targeted more in 2013. Thomas isn't going anywhere in the pecking order. The Broncos see him as a special player who still has room to grow, even after his 1,430-yard, 14-touchdown season in 2013.

Tight end Julius Thomas was the fourth-most targeted player in the Broncos' offense last season. He missed two games with a knee injury in the regular season, but was far more active in the playoffs. He will be a bigger part of the offense in the coming season.

Wes Welker missed the final three games of the regular season while recovering from a concussion, but he was the third-most targeted player in the offense.

Sanders' ability as a slot receiver, as well as his ability to line up out wide, should help the Broncos create more matchups to get Julius Thomas the ball down the hashmarks. It was Sanders' ability to line up all over the formation, as well as his after-the-catch performance, that made him the Broncos' top target on the offensive side of the ball once free agency opened.

Sanders had a career-best 67 catches last season, but the Broncos believe he can go far north of that total in their offense, given the choices Manning has before the ball is in the air. Still, all of those plans are built around the idea that Sanders has to be up for the job, too.

The Broncos may feel like Sanders is quicker in the short area, faster in the open field and better after the catch than Decker. But Decker was on the finishing end of touchdown passes 24 times in the two seasons he played with Manning.

Some of that was Manning's ability to work the Broncos' scheme and find the favorable matchup. There is a long list of receivers who have put up career-best numbers with Manning. Still, Decker's production will have to be replaced. The Broncos lined up in a three-wide receiver set on 73.6 percent of their offensive snaps last season.

The Broncos lined up in a three-wide set even more than that as the season wore on, including all but one snap against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round. And even with their intentions to run the ball better next season, Sanders will be key in how successful the Broncos are in making the transition from how the formation looked in 2013 to how it will look in 2014.

Questions surround Welker, who enters the season with two concussions in 2013 to go with a concussion history from before he signed in Denver. There is always a chance he will miss some time in the coming season.

In the end, the New York Jets put a $36.25 million contract in front of Decker and the Broncos signed Sanders to a $15 million deal. The Broncos did their comparison shopping, looked at the balance in the checkbook and made Sanders their choice.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was not at the league meetings this week, but by all accounts he's happy with the people who represented his team at the annual spring gathering and the direction they have taken the team over the last three years.

The Broncos just completed their third season with John Elway as the chief decision-maker on the football side with Joe Ellis as team president. A painful, somewhat embarrassing Super Bowl blowout last month aside, the results have been three consecutive AFC West titles, a favorable enough salary cap situation that allowed them to aggressively work free agency, and fan interest back where Bowlen always wants it to be.

All things, as the Broncos decision-makers adjourned from the meetings this week, have made Bowlen a happy team owner.

"He feels, we feel, the franchise is headed in the right direction," Ellis said as the meetings drew to a close. "Certainly hiring John Elway established the foundation, beginning of a trust that needed to be re-established with our fans, that was No. 1. No. 2, bringing John Fox on helped shift the culture both outside the building and inside the building. Those two hires have kind of re-established trust and re-ignited interest in the team."

Ellis said Bowlen likes the disciplined approach Elway has taken in terms of which players have gottten the long-term contracts that carry heavy salary-cap risks. In the four high-profile deals the Broncos signed with free agents this month -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- Ware's contract is the only one that carries a significant risk toward the salary cap beyond the 2014 season if Ware doesn’t play how the Broncos expect him to.

Ware is also the only one of the four who is more than 28 years old. The Broncos have taken similar approaches in the previous two forays into free agency when, beyond the deal for quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, the longer -- three years or more -- bonus-heavy deals have largely gone to younger players.

"John has done a very good job of bringing in players to help us win and he’s done it with the short term in mind and the long term in mind," Ellis said. "He doesn’t waver from that, sticks to his plan with discipline. I know Pat feels this way and so do I, we have the right team in place in football to have short- and long-term success. We’ve established a program that should allow -- they’ll be blips in the road -- but should allow for sustained success."

Ellis added that both he and Bowlen believe the Broncos’ approach has to be draft first and supplement with free agency if the team is to succeed both with Manning behind center and in the post-Manning era.

"People say we’re all-in because of the players we signed, I don’t see that way and John is very open and very honest in how he goes about shaping the roster," Ellis said. "He doesn’t talk about this year, he talks about this year and beyond … . He and Mike Sullivan structure deals that make sure we’re talking about this year and beyond."

"The clubs that have success, that have good performance over time, are the ones that stick to a discipline when it comes to picking players and paying players," Ellis added. "And at times in the past we may have gotten off track by signing players who were fix-it-now type players with fix-it-now type contracts and not showing any regard for financial discipline. Listen we need to spend to the cap to be competitive, we believe that, but you can’t spend recklessly. Some say you’re doing this through free agency, but I don’t think John, and I don’t want to speak for John, but the draft is equally important, if not more, to the organization."
Those who sat in the seats for Denver Broncos games this past season have no difficulty believing the league was awash in an ocean’s worth of records on offense.

On the way to a 606-point season -- an NFL record -- the Broncos were certainly productive in their home games. Working out of their no-huddle, high-altitude, the Broncos scored 49, 37, 52, 35, 45, 27, 51 and 20 in their regular-season home games, or 316 of their season's total.

That was a smooth 39.5 points per game.

So no one who sat through that is going to be all that surprised at the offensive numbers Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, a co-chairman of the league’s competition committee, rolled out during a conference call earlier this week.

That the 697 combined yards per game on offense or the 47.82 combined points per game were both league records. Or that teams overcame deficits of at least 14 times this past season, which tied another record.

But it was one other number McKay rolled that far more closely mirrored what the Broncos have done thus far in the offseason.

"Despite those two offensive statistics, the top five teams in total defense -- Seattle, Carolina, Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco -- all qualified for the playoffs," McKay said, "and all won at least 11 games, again, establishing that defense does matter."

Those five were ranked in the NFL's curious way to annually rank their defensive leaders -- yards per game allowed -- but those same five teams were all ranked in the top five in points allowed game as well, with the Kansas City Chiefs tied with the Bengals -- with 19.1 points allowed per game.

The Chiefs also made the playoffs and also won 11 games. So, that’s the top six in defense in terms of points allowed. Also, ranked No. 7 in fewest points allowed per game this past season, was the Arizona Cardinals, who did not make the playoffs, but did win 10 games.

None of this diminishes the importance of locating a franchise quarterback in the construction of the roster or the quarterback’s proficiency to work behind center in an era when the league’s rules makers have opened the gates to throw in any and all situations. The single biggest factor in any team’s drive to a championship is still whether the guy behind center is up to the challenge.

And one year does not a trend make. But while the salary cap makes it difficult to build a balanced team on both sides of the ball, 2013 showed the effort is worth it and given the relative youth on the rosters of those defensive leaders, it appears its required.

The Broncos certainly believed it with safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib having been the team’s first three signings after free agency formally opened. They have Peyton Manning, they have a playbook that powered the highest-scoring offense in league history and they have no reason to think they won’t pile up some points this time around either.

But if a 600-point offense can’t close the title-game deal, there is no reason to think whatever the Broncos do on offense will be enough in the coming year either without more on defense and special teams. They have recognized it and have put their money where that thought is.
When the Denver Broncos played offense last season, they were often driving toward history.

Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.

And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesMontee Ball and Denver's running backs might handle a bigger workload in 2014.
Also, 18 times a team overcame at least a 14-point deficit last season to win. That tied a league record, set in 2011. So, this is unquestionably the era of throw to score. Yet, the Broncos’ ability to be one win better in February in the coming season might rest on how well they do on offense when Manning isn’t throwing the ball.

“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."

By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.

However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.

And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.

Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.

The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.

There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.

And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.

The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.

The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.

For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.

No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.
When he was behind center for the Denver Broncos, John Elway was a 30-something player, was one for quite some time in fact. He was a Super Bowl starter as a 37- and a 38-year-old as the Broncos won back-to-back titles in the final two years of his playing career.

So he knows the value a productive, respected, proven veteran player can bring to a team, on the field and in the locker room.

But as an executive charged with spending Pat Bowlen’s money wisely and keeping the Broncos relevant in the Super Bowl chase every season, Elway has been particular about handing out the team’s biggest checks in free agency to the over-30 crowd.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithJohn Elway on signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware: "We feel like he's got a lot of football ahead of him."
In fact, three trips into free agency in his current job, the list is essentially two -- Peyton Manning and now DeMarcus Ware -- and Elway is pretty clear on why he made them exceptions to the rule.

“I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said.

In 2011, Elway’s first year in his role as the team’s chief football decision-maker, the Broncos only dabbled in free agency, sticking with short-term deals for the likes of Marcus Thomas, Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario.

In 2012, the Broncos dove in for Manning for a $96 million deal that included a pile of guaranteed money when Manning was ready to turn 36 following four neck surgeries. That has worked out with back-to-back 13-3 seasons and back-to-back division titles with some NFL single-season records tossed in.

The rest of the deals in 2012 were largely short-term, low-impact contracts. Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen received three-year deals. Tamme turned 27 just after signing his deal, and Dreessen was 29 when he signed. The 30-and-over crowd of Keith Brooking, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen and Brandon Stokley received one-year deals.

Safety Mike Adams was 30 when he signed and received a two-year deal. Adams, however, had played in at least 15 games in five of the previous six seasons before arriving in Denver. The rest, players such as Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer, both 30 or older, received one-year deals without signing bonuses.

In 2013, the Broncos’ biggest contract in free agency (four years, $23.5 million) went to guard Louis Vasquez, who was 25 when he signed his deal and went on to be named All-Pro. Terrance Knighton received a two-year deal, as did Wes Welker.

This past week, the Broncos were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, but they still largely stuck to the younger-is-better plan when the big money was in play. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward are 27 (Sanders turned 27 this week), and cornerback Aqib Talib is 28.

“It’s not [win] for now. We want young football players who are going to be here for a long time," Elway said. “... The age thing is big."

But in Ware, the Broncos saw a durable, high character player with 117 career sacks who has been a team captain and performed over the long haul. Ware, who soon will be 32, received a three-year, $30 million deal from the Broncos.

For that deal not to sting the salary cap, however, Ware simply has to play at least two of those seasons and be a major contributor. But the Broncos like that Ware’s preparation is unquestioned and that he has missed just three games in his career -- all in 2013.

“With 117 sacks, yeah, we feel like he’s got a lot of football ahead of him," Elway said. " ... We think he's going to perform at a high level, and with the way he practices, prepares and his knowledge of the game, he's going to help us on a lot of levels."

Elway the player made a career of taking risks with the ball and often turning those opportunities into history. Elway the executive has been more prudent -- a guy looking down the road, avoiding the franchise-crushing confines created by a we'll-worry-about-it-later approach to the salary cap.

“You have your wish list," Elway said. “We’re fortunate enough on our wish list we were able to X off a lot of guys on our wish list and [they] were able to come here. ... We want to plug in the right guys, the guys that make sense for us as an organization and guys who can be here and help us win for a long, long time."

Free-agency review: Broncos

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
Most significant signing: The Broncos went for the big splash in the opening days of free agency, reeling in four high-profile players -- DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. The most important addition, both on the field and in the locker room, may carry the biggest risk as well. Ware, 31, was the oldest player the Broncos signed last week, and he is coming off an injury-marred 2013 season. But Ware has 117 career sacks and has missed just three games in the previous nine years. The Broncos see him as still being an elite edge rusher worth a $30 million deal.

Most significant loss: On the field, wide receiver Eric Decker was the biggest loss. But in the locker room, it was linebacker Wesley Woodyard. The Broncos believe Sanders, if he gets up to speed quickly in the playbook, can be a more versatile receiver in their scheme than Decker was. Decker, however, is taller and had 24 touchdowns the past two seasons combined thanks to his work in the red zone. In the locker room, Woodyard was the first player since Hall of Famer Floyd Little to be a captain each of his first six seasons with the team. Woodyard's outlook, work ethic and ability to relate to his teammates will be missed.

Biggest surprise: Most in the league expected the Broncos to be active once the bidding opened last week. But they were able to reel in two players -- Talib and Sanders -- after they appeared to be heading elsewhere. The Broncos were negotiating with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during the first hours of free agency before they zeroed in on Talib. Sanders took four team visits but signed his deal with the Broncos shortly after he arrived at the team's complex Sunday.

What's next? The Broncos were able to address some of their most glaring needs on the depth chart at defensive end, wide receiver and cornerback. It will allow them the freedom to take the best player available in May's draft, no matter the position. The Broncos will still give a long look to a deep class of receivers in the draft and will likely take a cornerback as well. They are largely done in free agency unless they see an offensive lineman who piques their interest.
Consider this a sort of football version of myth busters. But as the Denver Broncos were busy making it rain in the opening days of free agency with five signings, four of those of the high-profile, get-some-headlines variety, much of the national conversation was about how the team pulled it off.

And there is no real mystery. The two biggest reasons the Broncos were able to do what they did:
  • They planned for it. Their salary cap situation was, and still is, better than most thought.
  • Winning is a powerful lure. Players are willing to structure deals that will pay them if they succeed, but also fit into the Broncos’ big picture so the team avoids the one-shot, mammoth signing bonus that eats the future cap room if things don't work out.

On the first item, the Broncos are still a fairly young team at the grassroots level of the roster, with many players still on their rookie deals. They have 34 players with salary-cap charges of $2 million or less among their top 51 salaries at the moment, 27 players with cap charges of $1 million or less.

That will change when the draft class arrives, but those players will be younger than most on the Broncos’ roster. Still, the Broncos simply had more room to work than most thought as free agency got underway.

They had about $28.7 million of workable salary-cap space -- only the top 51 salary cap figures count in free agency -- as the clock wound down to last week’s opening. They got $10 million of additional room when they cut 12-time Pro Bowl selection Champ Bailey, and they picked up roughly $4.1 million when former captain Chris Kuper retired. However, since Kuper retired, the Broncos didn’t get the salary-cap room until he formally filed his paperwork to the league.

Kuper did that this past weekend and the Broncos promptly signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos have $6 million worth of workable space remaining, but will have to leave room for any potential players on injured reserve, even as they have accounted for their incoming draft class.

And then, on the second item, after back-to-back 13-3 seasons, a Super Bowl trip and Peyton Manning returning at quarterback, players were willing to work with the Broncos to construct deals that largely pay on performance instead of up-front money. If free agents weren’t willing to do that, the Broncos moved on.

It works when you’re winning, it works when you have Manning and it works if the team holds the line at some point and opens the checkbook with at least a modicum of discipline.

Here's a look at each of the high profile deals and how both sides gave at least some to make it work:

CB Aqib Talib

On paper, the deal is six years, $57 million and while initially the guarantees were reported at $26 million, the deal is a little more diverse than that in practice.

The only full, no-matter-what-happens guarantees are in 2014 -- the $4.5 million base salary, the $5 million signing bonus, a $2 million roster bonus and $500,000 worth of game-by-game incentives -- a potential total of $12 million, if he plays in every game.

The other potential guarantees -- his $5.5 million base salary in 2015 and his $8.5 million base salary in 2016 -- are only guaranteed if Talib is on the roster on the first day of each of those league years.

And if, because of injury or performance or something unexpected, the Broncos release Talib after just one season, the dead money hit on the cap would be $4 million in 2015, not nearly as severe as would be expected on a $57 million deal. If released in 2016, the dead money hit would be $3 million, $2 million in 2017.

DE DeMarcus Ware

Ware, at 31, was the oldest of the free agents, and the Broncos took the biggest plunge in terms of per year average on his contract.

But the Broncos again spread out the guaranteed payments. Instead of one big signing bonus up front, Ware agreed to $5 million to sign and his $3 million base salary is guaranteed in 2014. In 2015, $3.5 million of his $7 million base salary is already guaranteed, as well.

Ware also has a $5 million roster bonus for '14.

So, to make it work, the Broncos need one good season from Ware and if they get two, as they expect, it is a relatively safe deal. Ware's additional guarantees don't kick in until the fifth day of the league year in March 2015 (the other $3.5 million of his base salary and a $3 million roster bonus). He has a roster bonus he could also get in 2016.

S T.J. Ward

Ward, too, split up the guaranteed money and would have to remain on the roster to get it all instead of getting it all up front. Ward gets $7 million guaranteed in 2014 ($5 million signing bonus, $2 million base salary).

An additional $4 million in guarantees don't kick in until the fifth day of the 2015 league year.

WR Emmanuel Sanders

Sanders called being in the offense with Manning "wide receiver heaven." His deal is for $15 million, but could go to $18 million if his performance kicks in $3 million worth of escalators.

The Broncos, watching their cash flow after the initial surge of free agency, will pay Sanders a $3 million bonus next March instead of now. Because of that, Sanders' cap hit this season is $4 million.

Or as John Elway put it after Sanders' signing: "We had a bunch of cap space going into this year. ... We had plenty of cap space. That's why the misnomer of us winning now. Sure, we want to win now, but we also want to set ourselves up. ... There’s no question we’re trying to win this year, but we’re also trying get good base for a good football team for a long time."
Peyton ManningAP Photo/Paul SancyaDenver may have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning, but until the Broncos can surround him with quality players and balance their roster, they might never win the big game.

There is a longtime former NFL general manager -- one who built playoff teams, mined quality draft picks and sifted through the available free agents each and every year -- who has simply called it “the trap."

And it is a trap league executives happily wait to jump into, because to be in position for it, you are already in the smallest, most exclusive of clubs. It’s the one where you finally, gratefully, have a franchise quarterback behind center.

You are on the short list of Super Bowl hopefuls because of it, and people say your championship “window" mirrors the length of the quarterback’s career. So, what may have been a fairly balanced team full of potential and anticipation begins to tilt. It tilts to take care of the rare find at the game’s most important position, it tilts to surround the passer with receivers, blockers and running backs.

It tilts to throw more, to put more in the hands of the franchise quarterback, to rely on him more for any and all things.

When games are won, it all looks fine. Then the quarterback gets hurt, or the offense has a bad day at the wrong time, or everybody wakes up one day and the “team" is an aging franchise quarterback who doesn’t have enough around him to win the biggest games.

And at that point, the trap has sprung. Whether it’s 10, 11 or 12 wins a year, maybe even 13 or 14 a time or two, the regular-season baubles don't translate into many, or any, wins in the season’s final game.

I know plenty of personnel people around the league who say, repeatedly, to look at the quality of defensive personnel the New England Patriots had early in Tom Brady’s tenure when the team won three Super Bowls. Brady has been better, sometimes far better, than he was in those championship years, but the team has not.

The Denver Broncos watched what was perhaps the greatest season on offense in league history end in an embarrassing sleepwalk through Super Bowl XLVIII. It was a remember-when season that deserved its exclamation point. It will now wear the “regular season" asterisk on any list of memories because the Broncos didn’t have an answer for The Day the Offense Couldn’t Score.

The two AFC superpowers, Denver and New England, have now gone back and forth in free agency -- chasing many of the same players, answering each other’s signings -- all in a race to mine what they can for the remainder of their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks' careers.

The trouble is, many general managers suggest, that the franchise quarterback, the real-deal franchise quarterback -- not the coddled passer who thinks he’s one -- takes care and feeding. He likes to be at the center of things, deserves to be at the center of things.

They are also such rare finds, players teams often wait decades for, that it can be difficult not to simply shove all of the franchise’s fortunes on to their plate and hope for the best.

And while the desire for the uber passer is forever, it is worth noting there were just three teams balanced enough in personnel and/or approach to be ranked in the league’s top 10 in yards allowed per game on defense, points allowed per game on defense and points scored overall.

They were the Cincinnati Bengals, the New Orleans Saints and, yes, the Seattle Seahawks.

Those three teams were a combined 35-13, and the Seahawks are champions.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has taken plenty of post-playoff-loss roasting since season’s end, and there are questions about whether he’s the right guy behind center. And the Saints have wrestled with their own version of salary-cap woes with quarterback Drew Brees set to enter his 14th NFL year with three do-everything 5,000-yard passing seasons on his résumé since the Saints’ Super Bowl win to close out the 2009 season.

In the past month, the Saints have angered their all-everything tight end Jimmy Graham by slapping the franchise tag on him, cut Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Lance Moore and traded Darren Sproles.

For their part, the Seahawks believe they have a franchise player at quarterback in Russell Wilson. Head coach Pete Carroll has said it, even as his well-rounded, defensively gifted team physically overpowered people on the way to the Lombardi Trophy. Their challenge now will be to watch Wilson grow in whatever team they put around him, even as they decide how much to ask him to do.

The franchise quarterback always wants the ball, but that doesn’t mean he should always get it. He should get it a lot -- most of the time, even -- but regardless of whether he likes it, not always.

That is why it is intriguing to watch a former franchise quarterback in John Elway attack free agency as an executive with his own almost 40-something future Hall of Famer behind center in Peyton Manning. The Broncos have already said they want to run the ball better next season and are already working through plans to make that happen.

And when Elway opened Pat Bowlen’s checkbook last week, the big numbers went defense, defense and defense to T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware.

Elway has repeatedly talked of the draft being the linchpin of a team, that a franchise's only real shot at long-term success is to bring in younger, cheaper players to replace those who leave because no team can keep, and pay, everybody it wants to.

But peel away the layers, and the Broncos-are-all-in conversations near and far are misplaced. In reality, it all has the look of an executive who understands he didn’t win it all as a player until the team he was with simply didn’t ask him to do everything.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway said "everything in my power," he meant everything.

Everything as in Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and incessant desire to win. Everything as in Elway’s legacy as a Hall of Fame player. Everything as in a presumptive Hall of Famer currently at quarterback, and everything as in one of the most favorable salary-cap positions among the 2013 playoff teams.

Yes, the Broncos, still bruised in many ways from a 35-point Super Bowl loss last month, have rampaged through the opening hours of free agency with some specific goals in mind. They wanted to get nasty, wanted to have the elusive Plan "B" for when their next-level offense doesn’t have the kind of day it’s used to.

And the result has been a 24-hour defensive binge that now includes defensive end DeMarcus Ware (three years, $30 million, $20 million guaranteed); cornerback Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed); and safety T.J. Ward (four years, $23 million, $14 million guaranteed).

"That’s why me, Talib and Ware were brought in, three physical players. ... It’s going to help this defense, it’s going to help this team," Ward said in his first appearance at the Broncos' complex.

But Elway made Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning a promise as he recruited him in the days that followed his release from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. When Manning arrived at the Broncos’ complex for a visit, he was still stunned the Colts had actually released him, still reeling with all of the uncertainty in front of him.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAqib Talib said that signing with the Broncos gives him the best shot at reaching the top of the NFL.
"I wasn’t sure what the future was going to look like. There wasn’t a map for me to follow," Manning had said.

But at that time, Elway’s pitch was a promise that Elway, as Bowlen’s chief football decision-maker, would "do everything in my power" to make sure Manning retired from the NFL as Elway did, with Super Bowl titles in those final seasons.

The Broncos made history on the way to last season’s 13-3 finish, set scoring records and raced into Super Bowl XLVIII using the fastest of fast lanes. Then the Seattle Seahawks pushed Denver down, and the Broncos simply never got up in one of the worst title-game losses of the Super Bowl era.

Manning didn’t play well, the receivers didn’t play well, the linemen didn’t block well and a defense that was the biggest question mark heading into the Super Bowl actually answered the bell until the game got out of hand.

But Elway has since talked of creating "the mindset" to win a championship, has talked of being more physical on both sides of the ball and has talked about if they saw the opportunity to sign any player the team believed could be better than the ones they had, the Broncos would do it.

They also had managed their salary cap well enough to have $28.7 million or so of cap space last Thursday morning. They then released cornerback Champ Bailey that day and guard Chris Kuper retired Monday. With those two events the Broncos gained roughly another $14 million in cap space, and with that cap space and the bulk of a roster good enough to have finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons, the Broncos went to work.

Ware, who will turn 32 in July, is now in the fold, but the Broncos can still project a potential starting lineup with 15 players 28 years old or younger, and seven players 25 years or younger. The team isn’t really in as big an “all-in" mode as their monetary festivus would seem to indicate.

Certainly, Manning is still the centerpiece of all this -- so much so that when Talib was asked Wednesday why he chose Denver, he quickly pointed to the 37-year-old quarterback.

"We just kind of looked at the best package," Talib said. "I do have a family, I have kids, I have a wife that I got to take care of and it was Peyton Manning, you know? It was just the total package. Denver was the best place."

Elway has been a no-nonsense, grassroots executive right from the start. He grinds the video on draft prospects, he goes to the Senior Bowl, he has made the pro day rounds and he makes decisions based on the long term "because my job is to be two steps ahead."

But after three trips through the opening of free agency, he has to be considered one of the league’s best closers as well, and closers get the coffee and former Pro Bowl selections, it seems -- Manning, Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Talib, Ward and now Ware.

So it seems the Broncos really didn’t just go all-in this year. They’ve just kind of had that mindset all along.

Dropping $57 million in somebody’s lap means never having to say you're sorry.

So while New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick may have thought receiver Wes Welker's collision with cornerback Aqib Talib in the Denver Broncos win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last January was “one of the worst plays I've seen," apparently, with a couple months to think about it, Talib had no such hard feelings.

But a blockbuster, perhaps THE blockbuster, deal as the first day of NFL free agency drew to a close will provide a rather tidy balm. Talib was the Broncos’ big catch Tuesday with a six-year, $57 million deal that had folks raising eyebrows all over the league.

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway once again flashed a little of his wild side, the side that could gain 98 yards with a playoff game on the line as a quarterback, that rears its head from time to time in Elway the executive. Talib just turned 28 last month, so he fits the age profile Elway likes in free agency.

But the general consensus late last night among the folks with the checkbooks in hand around the league is any player you sign on free agency’s first day is getting overpaid. Talib got more from the Broncos than many in the league expected he would from any team.

To put that into perspective in 2011 the Broncos signed Champ Bailey to a four-year, $42.5 million deal when Bailey already had been named to 11 Pro Bowls. Certainly times change and so do salary caps, but the Broncos were aggressive with this one as they gave their secondary a major makeover before free agency was even 12 hours old.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Ward
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesSafety T.J. Ward got a four-year deal worth $23 million ($14 million guaranteed) with the Broncos.
Safety T.J. Ward also signed in Denver for four years, $23 million, with $14 million guaranteed. Add in Talib’s $26 million guaranteed and the Broncos dropped some serious coin on a position in which the depth chart was wafer thin when the day began.

The Broncos had six defensive backs from last year’s roster who were either unrestricted or restricted free agents and then they released Bailey last week. Ward is the physical, versatile safety the Broncos wanted, tough enough to play down toward the line of scrimmage in the run game with the athleticism to play in space as well.

Ward is also just 27 and won’t turn 28 until December, so he too fits the age profile Elway has tried to keep in free agency in his tenure.

To make potential reality, to turn risk into reward, the Broncos need Ward and Talib to stay healthy and to be on the field. That is always the crux of the high-priced opening week of free agency, it's always the difference between the deal gone bad and one that gives an equal return for the investment.

The Broncos did better on Ward’s contract than many in the league said his asking price was when free agency opened. Talib’s deal, however, has almost as much guaranteed money as the total deal for Alterraun Verner ($26.5 million), who was also one of the top cornerbacks on the market and is heading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Talib has not started 16 games in any season. He had 13 starts in 2013 for New England and nine games combined for the Patriots and Buccaneers in 2012. The closest he has come to a 16-game season was 2009 when the started 15 games in his second season in the league.

Last month, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was asked during a radio appearance why Talib wasn’t slated to get a big contract from the Patriots. Kraft said “he wasn’t on the field a lot of the time since he’s been with us." Ward, too, has had some injuries. He missed the last two games of the 2012 season because of a bone bruise on his knee and missed the last games of the 2011 season with a foot injury.

But Ward is coming off a 112-tackle season in 2013 to go with an interception for a touchdown. And that’s the kind of presence the Broncos are paying for right now.

Still, when Elway took the job with the Broncos, two of the league’s general managers he consulted were Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers and Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens. Both have built Super Bowl winners by emphasizing the draft and largely sitting out free agency, especially Thompson. And Elway, too, has consistently declared the draft the most important part of building the Broncos’ depth chart, but it seems he likes to throw long ball in his executive role as well.

He dove in to the tune of $96 million on an MRI and prayer for Peyton Manning in 2012 and that resulted in back-to-back division titles to go with a Super Bowl trip. Last year he went early in free agency for Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton.

Vasquez went onto an All-Pro season, Welker had a career-best 10 touchdowns and Knighton was the Broncos’ best defensive lineman down the stretch.

So, if Elway is right on Ward and Talib, the Broncos are in the hunt once again. If not, the salary cap pinch will follow at some point.

But with DeMarcus Ware, owner of 117 career sacks, now scheduled to visit the Broncos in the coming days, Elway likely has enough cap room -- they opened free agency with just less than $32 million to spend after Chris Kuper's retirement -- to sell Ware on a chance at a Super Bowl. And Elway will have to be at his closing best to do that for the soon-to-be 32-year-old Ware.

Elway, the guy who once consistently showed he knew the art of the comeback, is getting it done with the art of the deal as well. When he said earlier this year “if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them, and if they’re out there then we’ll sign them" he meant it.