Broncos' free-agency approach pays off

When Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and team president Joe Ellis reorganized the team's football operations in 2011, a process that began with John Elway's hiring, Elway used that first season to gauge how those around him went about their business.

Elway's first major front-office hire was former agent Mike Sullivan, who had a quarter-century's worth of experience negotiating contracts from the players' side and had run the football division of Octagon Worldwide, one of the major players in the sports agency game.

At the time, Elway said Sullivan would be "a great asset" to the team.

Turns out the Broncos have done some quality work managing the cap the past three years. The spending binge that reeled in safety T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware was the result of having enough of Bowlen's cash to pay the required upfront money, as well as a salary-cap position to allow them to do it.

And a little bump in the salary cap -- to $133 million per team -- didn't hurt.

But the Broncos have taken the same approach to the past three forays into free agency. They drive hard early to sign a few specific targets, then back off a bit. They also have effectively emphasized their playoff possibilities and having Peyton Manning at quarterback to get the kinds of deals they want.

Last year, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton signed two-year deals. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed a two-year deal that voided to a one-year deal just days after the Super Bowl, and they signed Shaun Phillips, who finished with 10 sacks last season, to a one-year deal with no signing bonus. The year before that, the Broncos signed Justin Bannan, Keith Brooking, Brandon Stokley, Dan Koppen and Jim Leonhard, all either starters or major contributors, to one-year deals.

Even Wednesday, there were plenty of raised eyebrows around the league at how a team that played in the Super Bowl was in a position to be so active in free agency's opening hours.

It was especially true when word began to circulate of the six-year, $57 million deal given to Talib. But a closer look at Talib's deal shows it is far more cap-friendly for the team than many expected.

It could potentially include $26 million worth of guarantees, but much of that is an injury guarantee if Talib, who has never played 16 games in a season, has a career-ending injury.

The real guarantee is $12 million, all paid this season to Talib -- a total that includes up to $500,000 worth of bonuses based on how many games Talib is in uniform in 2014. So it's really closer to a three-year deal worth roughly $27 million. Much of the total is in the base salaries for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons -- $11 million, $11 million and $8 million respectively -- which are not guaranteed.

In the end, Talib wanted to be in Denver, and the Broncos wanted him enough to stop waiting for a decision from Rodgers-Cromartie.

"They kind of just focused on me and showed how much that they wanted me here," Talib said. "That played the biggest part. I just wanted to go somewhere where I was wanted, where I felt wanted, where I felt like the guys wanted me. That's kind of how it went.”

The Broncos got Ward for less than the initial request from Ward's representatives, even when the Broncos initially weren't certain something would get done with the Pro Bowl safety.

And those two deals, structured as they are, allowed the Broncos to sign Ware to close out the initial wave.

"They're trying to get the job done," Ware said. " ... I think the thing is, we're trying to make a statement."