Elway: Serving youth forces decisions that 'are not always going to be popular'

Graziano expects Ward to generate interest as free agent (1:47)

Dan Graziano breaks down the Broncos' decision to release T.J. Ward and the teams that might be interested in acquiring him. (1:47)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos safety Darian Stewart may still be a 20-something -- barely -- but when the 29-year-old arrives to work Monday morning he will suddenly be the elder statesman of his position group.

Safety T.J. Ward was the most notable played released after the Broncos trimmed their roster to 53, considering his standing in the locker room, his role in the team's high-profile defense and his three career Pro Bowl trips. That leaves Stewart with two second-year players in Justin Simmons and Will Parks as well as rookie Jamal Carter.

“I mean, that’s what we’re always trying to do and find young guys," said Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway. "Jamal Carter was [an undrafted rookie] that we found this year that’s come on, had a great camp. ... You’re always looking for that youth and developing them."

Elway is just as tough and determined in making personnel decisions as he was as a quarterback with no timeouts and plenty of field to cover to get a win.

Former Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who retired earlier this year, put it this way in early February before he made his decision to call it a career: "I want to come back, I love those guys, but as a player you can want that, but John Elway has to want you back too. The Broncos and Elway have been great to me, I love the team, but we all know Elway has to want you back and makes those calls."

That he does. And Ward was another one of those calls.

Ward, who had a year left on his contract, was a popular player among his teammates. He has been productive on the field and part of a defense that has been among the league’s top four in either scoring or total defense in four of the past five years. The Broncos have finished with the league’s top pass defense in each of the past two seasons.

But the Broncos looked at Simmons, Parks and Carter and decided the three 23-year-olds could equate to Ward, or close to it. Whether that math is right or wrong is for the season to determine.

For his part, Elway has always said the biggest part of his job is “to make sure we were in a position to compete for world championships not just this year, but four and five years down the road.’’ That means managing the draft, the salary cap and the roster with that in mind.

Face it, any team executive who can sit across from a player like Peyton Manning after a 39-touchdown season and not only broach the idea of a pay cut but actually get one is going to look at every contract with a critical eye. Elway admits life as a team executive means he makes decisions that he wouldn’t have always endorsed as a player.

"I didn’t agree with every move management made," Elway said this weekend. " … But I can tell you how many friends and people I had, cut over their careers, I didn’t agree with all of them. That’s hard. … We had to do what we believe is best for the Denver Broncos. When you make tough ones like this, they’re not always going to be popular."

Elway said Saturday that he had spoken to Ward’s agent and conveyed the Broncos were not ready to do a contract extension “at that point in time.’’ The Broncos did not ask Ward to take a pay cut, either. Elway and coach Vance Joseph said the decision on Ward "was a football decision."

Simmons, a 2016 draft pick, will play in the base defense. Parks, also a ’16 pick, will step in for the Broncos’ situational packages. Carter, who made it 13 of the last 14 years in which an undrafted rookie has made the Week 1 roster, is ready to play on special teams and on defense, if needed.

Joseph phrased it as “opportunity leads to promotion.’’ And now the Broncos do what a team has to do after the roster is made: Play the season and see how many of the decisions were correct.

“I think that [the players] understand, at least I hope they understand, we had to do what we believe is best for the Denver Broncos,’’ Elway said,. “This is a situation -- when you make tough ones like this they’re not always going to be popular but I think the young guys will step up and play well and fill those shoes very well."