ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Say this for the Denver Broncos: They’re versatile.
They’ve gone from the high-flying, throw-first, no-huddle attack of 2013, the one that set the league’s single-season scoring record at 606 points, to the hold-the-line, get-it-done defense of 2015, the one that powered the team to a Super Bowl win.
And they’ve gone from the rebuild, largely with their own draft picks, after the 4-12 2010 season to the free-agency shopping spree of 2014 that -- in the wake of a 35-point Super Bowl loss -- reeled in four impact players: Safety T.J. Ward, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Each has been named to the Pro Bowl in his time with the Broncos, and each started the team’s win in Super Bowl 50.
“We feel like we’ve done what we needed to do," executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “We’re always looking to do things to keep us competitive ... the draft will always be the core of what we do, but if we see a player we believe can help us, we’ll look in free agency too."
Considering that the team's fanbase is more than a little rattled by how free agency has gone so far, it’s all being tested again. Wearing the tightest of salary caps, the Broncos have seen Malik Jackson, Brock Osweiler and Danny Trevathan, all former Denver draft picks, leave in free agency. Running back C.J. Anderson signed an offer sheet with the Miami Dolphins, and the Broncos have five days to match it.
In short, Elway has consistently said he would prefer the Broncos be a draft-and-develop team. He wants the players to “know what your culture is, know what it is to be a Denver Bronco."
That's how it's going to have to be again. The team’s all-in approach in free agency in ’14 was an anomaly, a right-time, right-place convergence of need and salary-cap resources. There was a gap in the team’s draft classes, especially in 2009 and the back end of the 2010 class -- players who would have been in their fourth and fifth seasons in 2014. Instead of deciding which of their homegrown players to keep, the Broncos opted for a windfall that went to free agents Talib (six years, $57 million), Ware (three years, $30 million), Ward (four years, $22.5 million) and Sanders (three years, $15 million).
The Broncos aren’t in position to do that again. The team had $17 million in cap space before the Broncos signed tackle/guard Donald Stephenson to a three-year, $14 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus and before they traded a seventh-round conditional draft pick for quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez’s cap charge for the coming season is $3.75 million to go with Stephenson’s $4 million. With the re-negotiation the Broncos did with Ware, which trimmed about $3.5 million from his cap figure, the Broncos now have about $12.5 million in workable cap space.
Some of that will be taken by a draft pool that must cover the Broncos’ 10 picks this April. The Broncos continue to try to re-negotiate tackle Ryan Clady's deal ($10.1 million against the salary cap) and could address punter Britton Colquitt's contract as well ($4 million against the cap), to create some additional room if they wish to do more in free agency.
The Broncos are still considering additional options at quarterback, but any potential help will have to arrive from the new rookie class and younger players filling bigger roles, such as linebacker Shane Ray, wide receivers Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler and nose tackle Sylvester Williams.
“They’ve got a lot of games under their belts now and snaps under their belts, even though they are very young players," coach Gary Kubiak said of the Broncos' youngsters. “Year 2 and Year 3, when we come back and go to work, they’re going to be very seasoned. Not many guys get to go through the playoff run we went through [and] play in a Super Bowl. Our young players got so much better."