Seeing is believing. After spending the offseason coming up with one-liners about Mike Shanahan's decision to import the Cleveland Browns defensive line into the Mile High City, it's time to come clean.
Shanahan made one of the best series of acquisitions of the offseason. It may not be have been as big as adding Randy Moss to the Raiders offense. It may not be the final piece of a Super Bowl move such as the Colts' late signing of defensive tackle Corey Simon. Adding the Cleveland Foursome might not create the dramatic defensive improvement expected from the Chiefs acquisitions of Patrick Surtain, Kendrell Bell, Derrick Johnson and Sammy Knight or Bill Parcells' aggressive switch to the 3-4. But just three weeks into the season, we're now believers that Shanahan & Co. made the right moves.
The Broncos are a better defense with the additions of Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers. In Cleveland, they might have been the Mistakes by the Lake. In Denver, the sky is the limit.
In victories over AFC West rivals San Diego and Kansas City, the four former Browns grew into their roles and their comfort level with the team. The Cleveland castoffs aren't to be confused with Fearsome Foursome or the Steel Curtain, but they look good in their new environment.
The key is the cost. Brown was signed after being cut. Ekuban and Myers were picked up in a trade for halfback Reuben Droughns. Warren came for a mere fourth-round choice. As a bonus, Shanahan picked up John Engelberger from the 49ers for Willie Middlebrooks, who didn't initially make the 49ers' 53-man roster. The former Browns cost $5.795 million for the entire package. Engelberger makes $1.265 million. To keep defensive end Reggie Hayward, the Broncos would have had to spend $7 million on just his signing bonus. The Broncos got four Cleveland defensive linemen talented enough to start and Engelberger for the same price.
As much as we criticize Shanahan for the selecting of Maurice Clarett; the bad free agent signings of Dale Carter and a few defensive linemen; and shaky picks at wide receiver, it's time to fess up. The Broncos are a better team getting five good players in a roster area that is traditionally the hardest to find good talent. Following the victory over the Chiefs, Shanahan, when pressed by questions, acknowledged this was his best defensive line in Denver.
"Our [top] seven guys on the defensive line can really play," Shanahan said of his rotation for the Chargers and Chiefs' games. "It kinda gives you an idea that two of the guys who started against Kansas City last year (Monsanto Pope and Marco Coleman) are on our football team and didn't dress."
However, the Browns don't deserve criticism for letting these guys go. Romeo Crennel was shifting to a 3-4, and clearly, Warren and Brown had been disappointments. The Browns' expansion team invested their future on the high first-round draft selections of Tim Couch, Brown and Warren and found the cupboard bare. Couch is out of football waiting to get back. Brown constantly fought injuries and lost. Warren had the growl of a Warren Sapp defensive tackle but the defense didn't have the bite with him in the lineup.
Shanahan and general manger Ted Sundquist didn't intentionally covet the entire Browns defensive line, but it began a growing gamble the Broncos couldn't refuse. High-priced underachievers come at bargain prices. Shanahan can take backs off the street and make them 1,200-yard runners. Droughns failed in halfback ventures with other teams, came to the Broncos as a backup fullback, and when given the chance, he became a 1,200-yard runner. A year ago, Shanahan traded halfback Clinton Portis -- a 1,500-plus yard rushed in two seasons with the Broncos -- for Champ Bailey, an elite corner, and still had a playoff-caliber backfield.
So, a running back and a fourth-round pick for four-man defensive line is a steal.
"We had hired Andre Patterson as our defensive line coach and he came over from Cleveland," Sundquist said. "He knew them and he was able to help us through the process of identifying the skills of these players. It wasn't a thing where we were just suddenly collecting defensive linemen from the Browns."
The process started with Brown. For the Broncos, it was a calculated gamble. One of the criticisms of the Broncos during their first-round playoff losses to the Colts was the lack of a pass-rush. It seemed crazy to let double-digit pass-rushers go in Bertrand Berry and Hayward over a two-year period, but the team didn't feel they were worth paying $5 million or $6 million a year. At $1.7 million, Brown was a calculated risk at a modest price, and each week he's showing flashes of being a decent pass-rusher.
Warren clearly was the best acquisition. Patterson assured Shanahan he had a good work ethic. There are no questions about his skills. He may not be Sapp in his prime but he has the ability to take over a game in the middle of the field. Against the Chargers, he started to dominate and eventually commanded more blocking attention.
"Gerard was the type of defensive linemen we haven't had around here," Sundquist said. "He has a good work ethic and motivation."
More importantly, Broncos players like Warren. As a new player, Warren didn't have to prove himself to his defensive line mates. Almost half of the line came over with him from Cleveland, which is a completely unique experience.
"We have a pretty high standard here for defensive linemen as far as judging us as a unit, but over the last four or five years, I think this is the best group I've been with," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "The thing that the group does the best is team speed. I didn't realize how fast Courtney Brown was. Courtney is probably faster than I am and he runs on his heels, which is pretty funny. Gerard has a thing where he can run his mouth the whole time, but he busts nothing. I got the defensive line coach telling me to focus and I'm not saying anything. I got Gerard cursing like a sailor next to me but he doesn't mess up anything."
Pryce calls the Cleveland Foursome the most professional group he's been around. For one, the guys are humbled by the Cleveland experience. Shanahan is an ideal coach who creates a great environment for veterans, and they've fit in.
What sealed my opinion that this marriage of Cleveland defensive linemen and Denver defensive players works is the final six quarters of the past two Broncos game. Their season was getting ugly against the Chargers. They were 0-1 and trailed, 14-3 entering the third quarter. Bailey gambled to intercept a Drew Brees pass for a touchdown, and the defense seemed to jell. The Chargers went 0-for-6 on third downs in the second half. The defensive line was active. Warren was at times dominating.
The Chiefs game was even more impressive. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was being criticized internally for calling too many fire zone blitzes, some in which two defensive tackles dropped into coverage. Coyer gave his new defensive line a test drive and unleashed them. Pryce dominated at end. Warren drew most of the blocking. Ekuban and Brown occasionally pressured Trent Green. Myers was solid as a run-stopping nose tackle. Engelberger provided hustle.
Maybe all of this wouldn't have worked had the Broncos traded Pryce, but in the end he stayed. The Broncos rank eighth on defense but they are deeper and more talented than a year ago when they finished fourth. The NFL is a marathon. Injuries happen. Last year, the Broncos had an old defensive line with a lot of role players.
There may not be a time in the next 10 years in which a team can acquire four defensive linemen for a replaceable running back and a fourth-round choice, but the Broncos did it. Shanahan deserves credit for making the right moves.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.