ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- His first might still be his best.
As in John Elway’s first draft class as the Denver Broncos chief football decision-maker. It's a class that included a six-time (and counting) Pro Bowl selection in Von Miller and seven players who have started games for a team that has won five division titles and made two Super Bowl appearances.
It was 2011 and the Broncos took Miller at No. 2 overall and then found production and impact at almost every spot on the board with their nine-player class. This year, the Broncos once again have a top-five pick, and they need production and impact from as many picks as possible.
"We have to find the components to ... add to what we have and part of that is to go through the draft and have a good draft … with guys who are Denver Broncos hopefully for a long time," Elway said.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear the 2011 draft class -- as well as the 2012 class, which included future starters DE Derek Wolfe, DE Malik Jackson and LB Danny Trevathan -- succeeded because the Broncos found players with the right blend of athleticism, football savvy and vocational character.
Miller, S Rahim Moore, OT Orlando Franklin, LB Nate Irving, S Quinton Carter, TE Julius Thomas and TE Virgil Green were among the Broncos’ nine draft picks in 2011 who came to a team that had finished 4-12 the season before. Those seven players not only wanted to play, they pushed hard to get that playing time.
The Broncos’ last two draft classes have been heavy on athleticism -- the height-weight-speed triangle of scouting -- but neither class has had many players move to the top of the depth chart. The disconnect between those newer players and the Broncos' more established veterans certainly played a role in last season's 5-11 finish.
Green, who signed with the Chargers last month as a free agent, used the word "entitled" and said as last season drew to a close "some of the young guys have potential, but they have to do more of the little things and just accept it’s going to take work." Wolfe made a local radio appearance early in the offseason and added that rookies "every year get more and more entitled."
Of the players in the past two draft classes -- 16 combined -- safety Justin Simmons and left tackle Garett Bolles were the only full-time starters last season. Adam Gotsis was a rotational player on the defensive line. Although Bolles has flashed potential, multiple personnel executives in the league said in recent weeks that when they look at the Broncos’ roster they would consider Simmons to be the only sure-fire hit from those two classes right now.
Those same executives added the caveat that time will tell -- the value of a draft class is often not fully seen for years -- something Broncos coach Vance Joseph echoed this offseason, especially when asked about quarterback Paxton Lynch, whom the Broncos took in the first round in 2016. Even Miller had a bumpy ride at times during his first two seasons.
Miller was pulled from the lineup at times as a rookie for missing assignments, and he served a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in his second season. He says players such as DeMarcus Ware showed him "how much more there was than just being an athlete, running around out there."
Elway and Joseph have each used words like “culture" and “football character" when talking about what they’re trying to add to the locker room with this year’s draft class. The Broncos are still trying to recover from the leadership vacuum left behind after Peyton Manning and Ware retired and safety David Bruton Jr. signed with Washington in free agency.
All three were captains on the team that won Super Bowl 50.
“We know the issues that we had last year; let’s go fix them" is how Joseph put it in recent weeks. "But we want to start with accountability on all fronts -- from all of us … the bottom line is to have great culture, to have everyone doing their best every day and being team-first. That’s having great culture. Very simple."