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Broncos did not get return on investment in free agency this season

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Much of the time, when John Elway talks about how the Denver Broncos will construct a roster, he will end an impassioned discussion about the importance of building through the draft with his customary final thought on the matter.

And it always goes something like: “But we’ll look at free agency, we’ll look at everything. If we see a guy out there who can help the Denver Broncos, we’ll do what we think gives us the chance to compete for world championships."

As the Broncos now wrestle with the team’s first playoff miss since 2010 -- and first since Elway returned in 2011 -- Elway is poised for an offseason of moves, decisions and some potential work with the checkbook. The season wasn’t over for even 24 hours when Elway was talking about how close he believes the Broncos can be to a return to the postseason. And, yes, free agency will be a part of that.

How big a part? Well, the jury remains out.

“We have to do some things offensively and defensively and with the draft," Elway said. “We have a bunch of draft picks and we’ll be involved in free agency."

The goal, as always for Elway, is to play in the kind of games other teams are playing from this weekend through Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.

In terms of free agency, it doesn't get better than the Broncos' response to a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl to close out 2013. Denver pounded out nothing but checkbook home runs in 2014. Oh yes, the Broncos went all shopping spree as they reeled in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders and T.J. Ward.

All four players have been named to at least one Pro Bowl thus far in Denver, and all four played key roles in consecutive AFC West title runs and a win in Super Bowl 50.

“Those guys came in, and right away you knew it was going to be a fit," said linebacker Von Miller. “You knew great things were going to happen, just the way they came right in and started doing their thing."

In 2015, the Broncos took a far more economically measured approach in free agency, but did land soon-to-be starters in Owen Daniels -- Daniels caught two touchdown passes in the AFC Championship Game last January -- Darian Stewart, Vance Walker and Evan Mathis. For the dollars spent, the Broncos once again got quality return.

However, then there was 2016, a season that got away. What the Broncos hoped would happen never quite happened. Their defense was good, often dominant, but it didn’t manage the biggest moments like the 2015 defense did. And the offense stayed mired in struggle for much of the year -- 22nd in the league in scoring, 28th in rushing.

“We have a defense to build on, but I think that this year was disappointing," Elway said.

In those bobbles, it’s clear the Broncos’ work in free agency didn’t give produce the returns the team expected. The two biggest signings were tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson.

And after a season of struggle on the offensive line, Okung and Stephenson tied as the team’s most penalized players -- 11 each -- and face uncertain futures given the structure of their contracts. Okung’s deal was essentially a one-year contract, but an additional four years kick in if the Broncos pay a $1 million option bonus on or before March 9. Also, if the Broncos pay the bonus, an additional $21 million becomes guaranteed to Okung. And if Stephenson is on the roster on March 13, his base salary for the 2017 season -- $4 million -- is guaranteed.

To release one or both of those players would be a rather stinging indictment of last season's work in free agency. But the Broncos will be in position to do more than dabble this March, if they wish, given they are expected to have plenty of cap space, perhaps as much as $40 million. And the team expects to receive at least three, perhaps four, compensatory picks in the draft to go with the six they already have.

That combination should give Elway the flexibility to work the open market if the Broncos see help available to go with a hefty draft class. And certainly the offensive line will be at the top of the to-do list across the board.

“[We’ll] go back to work on it and try to fix it again," Elway said. “I think, obviously, we didn’t do a good job up front, but also as an offense. ... I think offensively we have to take that on as a challenge and find guys who want to compete. We have to get better offensively. ... We're going to be good on defense, but as an offense we have to take it as a challenge."