Broncos hope for right free agent/draft mix

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
6:00
PM ET
The folks at the home office in Bristol, Conn., ran a quick-hit poll via Twitter Friday afternoon, asking which team among the Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots and Washington Redskins had won free agency thus far.

And the Broncos, with 36 percent of the rapid-fire votes, were the winner.

Not the kind of sample size to make a definitive call, but the question behind that question is really whether teams want to consistently win in free agency. At least anecdotally the big spenders each March notoriously sit out the postseason in the season that follows despite being routinely showered with compliments as they toss the cash around because it all looks like they're "doing something" with players people know instead of ones they have to study.

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes the long-term road to success is paved with the draft. That the Broncos "need to find and develop the guys who are Denver Broncos for a long, long time, into multiple contracts."

Elway is in his fourth offseason with the team and has said this year's spending binge -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- was out of necessity, to fill needs Elway called "immediate" and "glaring."

And with the clock ticking on what remains of quarterback Peyton Manning’s career (post-spinal fusion), to go with the fact the Broncos have let rare title opportunities get away not just once, but in back-to-back seasons, there is some urgency swirling around the team to position itself for another run this time around.

But history, at least in the salary cap era, continues to often be unkind to the March winners. The Broncos are still a fairly young team overall around Manning and the real guaranteed money they shelled out in the recent deals is less than most think and the contracts are constructed -- at least with the exception of Ware's three-year deal -- with minimal salary cap damage if things don't work out after the first year.

All of that said, the draft-and-pay-your-own crowd largely sat out the spending spree this time around and the least active teams signed the fewest free agents from other teams. They also happen to be, for the most part, the teams that finished with the better records last season.

So, sure they needed less than those teams playing catch-up to try to break playoff droughts or welcome a new coaching staff. But the personnel executives around the league who track such things, as well as ESPN’s Stats & Information group, show six 11-win teams (Saints, Seahawks, 49ers, Patriots, Chiefs and Colts) who signed four or fewer players from other teams in free agency.

The other three teams with four or fewer signings were the Packers, who made the playoffs at 8-7-1, Rams (7-9) and Cowboys (8-8).

Certainly the Broncos still consider themselves a draft-built team, at least that’s how Elway has characterized it. But they have also spent lavishly to sign Manning in 2012 and this year’s shopping spree.

In 2013, only guard Louis Vasquez' deal topped two years and he went on to be an All-Pro at 26, as the Broncos weren’t nearly as aggressive with Pat Bowlen’s checkbook at this time a year ago.

In the end, they’ve won March before -- two years ago with Manning’s signing -- and won the division. They didn’t win March last year with a more low-key approach overall and won the division.

So, they know they can’t buy a title, but their hope continues to be all of the signings will help them earn one.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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