Broncos show difference a year can make in free agency

John Elway has been quieter in free agency this year when compared to last year's spending spree. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times when John Elway can’t say the word “process" without a bit of a smirk, maybe a chuckle.

Because he knows when NFL decision-makers say “process’’ there is a large segment of the football-loving populations that rolls its eyes with a not-again look. Because NFL decision-makers say “process’’ a lot during free agency and the work up to the draft.

And Elway, now in his fifth season as the Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager, has said last season’s spending binge in free agency for the Broncos was “part of the process, what we needed to do,’’ as the team made so many big splashes there wasn't much water left in the pool. The Denver Broncos reeled in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders on the way to their fourth consecutive AFC West title as all four of those players played in the Pro Bowl.

And Elway said this year’s approach, not quite all of the way at the other end of the spectrum of, say, the Green Bay Packers, who have not yet signed a player from another team in free agency, but close. At least far closer than it was a year ago.

“And it is a process, it is something we think about, we plan, and we try to stick to our plan, stick to your budget and do what’s best for the Denver Broncos,’’ Elway said. “... Sometimes people act like free agency is just the day it opens, or the first week, but this is a process all the way through until the trading deadline stops.’’

The Broncos have pretty much closed out the first week of free agency with their expected stance. Elway doesn’t want the Broncos to be as active in the big-money aisle as they were last year too often because “that means you probably have some holes you didn’t take care of with some draft classes, but you want to keep yourself in the position with the salary cap to have that option if you need it.’’

This time around they didn’t have the salary-cap space to participate like last year. They used the franchise player tag on Demaryius Thomas – a $12.823 million commitment – and the Broncos have allotted space if they get their hoped-for four compensatory picks and end up with 10 picks in the draft.

They are also a little top heavy on the salary-cap side of the roster as well, as you might expect with a team that has won four consecutive division titles. The have three players with salary-cap charges of at least $10 million – Peyton Manning ($17.5 million), Thomas ($12.823 million) and Ryan Clady ($10.6 million) and five players with salary-cap charges of at least $8.67 million with Von Miller ($9.754 million) and Ware ($8.67 million).

So, in the end, the Broncos once again, as they did last season, let their high-profile free agents go into the market to find better offers. And that’s what Julius Thomas, Orlando Franklin, Rahim Moore and Terrance Knighton did.

Tight end Virgil Green, as Elway lauded his work ethic and potential, was the Broncos' unrestricted free agent the team elected to re-sign (salary-cap figure of $2.2 million). They then signed tight end Owen Daniels, defensive lineman Vance Walker, safety Darian Stewart and guard/center Shelley Smith.

Of the group, Daniels, who signed a three-year, $12.25 million deal, will carry the biggest cap figure in the coming season at $2.75 million, as the Broncos hope those value signings, to go with an incoming draft class, limit the talent drain.

After the five signings, including Green’s new $8.4 million deal, to go with a handful of exclusive rights free agents like linebacker Brandon Marshall, a $1.54 million tender offer to cornerback Tony Carter and with the potential for a 10-player draft class that will have to be accounted for, the Broncos now have between $6 million and $7 million in workable salary-cap space with their top 51 contracts.

Until the end of training camp, teams are in cap compliance with their top 51 contracts. Teams also must have enough room to draft their entire class before the draft begins and keep enough to cover injuries to come since players on injured reserve count against the salary cap.

One spot where the Broncos have maintained some cap space that may have not been available to other teams is how the team has managed its “dead’’ money well, (the salary-cap charges for players who are no longer on the team). And dead money is the accounting danger that can await teams who elect to sign players to big-money deals and those players don’t see the contracts through because the team releases the players with multiple years remaining on the contract.

To this point, former kicker Matt Prater carries largest dead-money charge for the Broncos at $812,500. The next biggest charge is center Matt Paradis, who signed a four-year deal after being the team’s sixth-round pick last year but was released when the team went to 53 players at the end of the preseason.

Paradis was signed to the Broncos’ practice squad, but a cap charge of $68,250 from that rookie contract remains.

In the end, Elway said he knows the big signings are big news in free agency, but “I think my job is to look two, three years out, see where we are, where we want to be. We can’t do everything, but we can do what we think is the best for us.’’