Elway, Broncos air it out in free agency

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.

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.