Denver and Carolina gambled on free agents ... and it worked

The free-agent signings of DeMarcus Ware and Ted Ginn Jr. have paid off for the Broncos and Panthers. Icon Sportswire, EPA

The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will meet in Super Bowl 50, but both of their paths can be traced back to early 2011. On Jan. 5 of that year, the Broncos made John Elway their executive vice president of football operations. One of his first moves was hiring coach John Fox, who had been in Carolina for nine seasons. The Panthers moved on by hiring Ron Rivera, a first-time head coach in the NFL with a similar defensive background.

In the 2011 draft, Carolina selected quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick. The Broncos followed that by taking linebacker Von Miller second overall. Much work was to be done, but both teams had a franchise player to build around now with a vision for the future.

Carolina's progress was slower, while Elway expedited Denver's comeback by landing arguably the biggest fish to ever hit the free-agency pond: Peyton Manning. With Manning able to play at his usual MVP level, he elevated Denver's solid offensive cast into a top unit and Fox's improved defense made the Broncos an instant Super Bowl contender. Elway continued to make big splashes in free agency while bolstering the defense with high draft picks. Denver has started its past four drafts with Derek Wolfe (2012), Sylvester Williams (2013), Bradley Roby (2014) and Shane Ray (2015).

With expectations that Manning can make the offensive players better, the defense had a great mixture of young players and signed veteran talent such as Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward. The results this year have culminated in the best defense in the league. But we know spending in free agency is rarely a good path to the Super Bowl. Just ask the Miami Dolphins of recent years.

However, Denver is in the big game for the second time in three years despite getting 45.9 percent of its 2015 regular-season snaps from free agents. That is the highest percentage of any Super Bowl team in the past decade (see chart below). We looked only at offensive and defensive snaps because teams rarely use free agency to spend foolishly on special teams.

Note: Undrafted free agents debuting with these teams are not included in the numbers above, so Chris Harris Jr. and C.J. Anderson are not part of Denver's 45.9 percent.

Maybe the most surprising result is that Carolina ranks second. While the Broncos have a star-studded lineup, most people know Newton as the star in Carolina. However, this roster did have six first-team All-Pro selections this year. Carolina has been nowhere near as flashy as Denver's spending sprees, but this team has still used means other than the draft very well to build a roster that has gone 17-1 to reach the Super Bowl. Here are the most influential free agents on both teams.