ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos’ plunge into free agency before the 2014 season was historic for the franchise.
And it was as productive as it was expensive as the four players signed to hefty multiyear deals – cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders – went on to play in the Pro Bowl after the Broncos had won their fourth consecutive AFC West title.
But Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said that’s not how he consistently wants to run the team's business. He wants to construct a homegrown team that supplements when needed in free agency.
And that more frugal side of the Broncos’ use of the free-agency checkbook has been on display in this preseason and will continue to be on display through the regular season. This time around, the Broncos tried to target players after the initial wave of free agency they believed would fit specific roles.
“We thought we got some guys who could be good football players for us,” Elway said. “We had a different approach with the kind of team we have … and we had some places where we wanted to add those guys.”
Last year, Ware alone got a three-year, $30 million deal from the Broncos. This year the Broncos made their top eight free-agent signings for contracts worth $29.715 million. And those checks brought in tight end Owen Daniels, safety Darian Stewart, defensive end Vance Walker, linebacker Reggie Walker, tackle Ryan Harris, guard Shelley Smith, fullback James Casey and defensive end Antonio Smith.
Of the group of players brought in off the open market, only Daniels signed a deal for more than two years and for more than $5 million total – three years, $12.25 million -- as the Broncos' big swing went to a homegrown player with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' five-year, $70 million deal.
But as the Broncos officially closed the “camp” portion of their preseason this week leading up to Saturday night’s preseason game in Houston, their rotations in practice show they did indeed find players who fit what they wanted and players who held up their end of the bargain as well.
Daniels, Stewart, Casey and Harris are at the top of the depth chart at their respective positions. Vance Walker has been a do-it-all player in the Broncos defensive front, having lined up at both defensive end positions as well as nose tackle at times while Reggie Walker has been a reserve inside linebacker and a regular on several special-teams units.
Shelley Smith has worked with the second-team offense much of the time and Antonio Smith, who missed the offseason program, has started to get more snaps in a reserve role over the last two weeks.
The bottom line awaits to how their roles look if the Broncos are able to get into the postseason and to play deep into the playoffs.
“I think those guys all have played a lot of football; you can tell how they practice,” said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. “They show you right away they know how to go about things.”
It is Harris, though, who might have even surprised the Broncos a bit. The Broncos signed the veteran tackle on May 28, after Ryan Clady had suffered a season-ending knee injury in an OTA workout. At the time, because of his previous years in the offensive scheme in both Houston, where Kubiak had been head coach, and as a Broncos draft pick in 2007, the Broncos' hope was he could provide some depth and help some of the younger players as well.
But after the Broncos tabbed rookie Ty Sambrailo to play left tackle, the Broncos still had an open job at right tackle. And it has been Harris who has stayed with the starters there. Harris has battled injuries in his career, including some back troubles, and last started 16 games in a season in 2008 – for the Broncos.
He started 15 games for the Kansas City Chiefs last season.
“I’ve said, Ryan was really the best guy available out there when we needed to bring somebody in,” Kubiak said. “I’m just proud of him. I really am. He's come back from some things. He's stayed hungry. And I know we think he's got some good time left in him.”