ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will play in the franchise's seventh Super Bowl a week from Sunday because they did enough in the draft to make it that far, they did enough in free agency (OK, Peyton Manning is the ultimate free-agency home run) and they made it all work over the past three seasons.
But even with the extreme makeover that came with John Elway's return to the team as its chief football executive in January of 2011, even with the title-game appearance, there is still a roster hole the Broncos will have to address moving forward.
Or, to put it another way, there is a reason the Broncos will be the older team in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Broncos have seven players on the current 53-man roster who have played at least 10 seasons in the league, led by Manning's 16. The Seattle Seahawks have one: defensive end Chris Clemons. While the Broncos have certainly climbed all the way out of their 4-12 finish in 2010, they also are still a product of that season and the smattering of nonplayoff finishes that came before it.
For those who believe the draft is the team's foundation -- and Elway counts himself as one of those -- the real guts of a roster are those fifth- and sixth-year, homegrown players. Players drafted and then signed to their second contracts to stay put. Of the Broncos' captains -- Manning, Champ Bailey, David Bruton, Wesley Woodyard and Wes Welker -- just two have been with the team since they were rookies. That’s Bruton (2009 draft) and Woodyard (2008 undrafted rookie).
A player in his sixth season would be a product of the 2008 draft. And since ’08 the Broncos have had two coaching changes and two changes at the call-the-shots general manager level as well. Each resulted in a complete teardown from the previous regime. That is why this current roster includes a pile of young players to go with the veterans who have been around for at least 10 seasons. The Seahawks have 24 players with three seasons experience or less on their current roster -- players who came into the league in 2011 or after, while the Broncos have 22.
It means the Broncos' roster gap is rooted in '08 and '09. For the Broncos, only Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady remains from the ’08 draft, which was Mike Shanahan’s last season with the team, while Woodyard remains a high-quality find as an undrafted rookie from that year as well.
A player in his fifth year would be a product of the 2009 draft. For the Broncos that includes only Bruton, running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Robert Ayers. While Bruton is a special-teams regular, Moreno is still the only one of those three players who played at least 50 percent of the team’s snaps on offense or defense this season.
And that has put the Broncos in a position to be active in free agency at the front end -- the recruitment and signing of Manning in 2012 -- to go with a series of one-year contracts to experienced players. This past year that included defensive end Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), cornerback Quentin Jammer and linebacker Paris Lenon.
"I’ve always said if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them," Elway said. "And if they’re out there then we’ll sign them. So age and all that at this point in time, with where we were coming out of a 4-12 year and then we go to 8-8 now at that point and then you get a guy like Peyton Manning. Now it’s about trying to find all the pieces together … but we’re not just trying to find young guys. We’re going to find guys that fit, young and old guys, that fit together."
From Elway’s perspective, a Super Bowl trip only helps his cause, as would Manning’s expected return for 2014 if doctors give the quarterback the go-ahead in the weeks following the Super Bowl to play next season. So, even as Elway would continue his quest to "stack those draft classes year after year," to make the draft the foundation of sustaining what they’ve done over the past three seasons, the Broncos would be a popular destination for veteran players in search of success.
"It comes down to the thing is that it’s been my goal to really continue what [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen created in the fact that people want to play here," Elway said. "So players will come here late in their career when they know they have a chance to win a world championship and they know the reputation of the Denver Broncos since Pat Bowlen has been here that it’s a good place to play … . If money is the No. 1 thing, we’re really not on the same page if it’s all about money, in my mind."