On Tuesday, the first official day of NFL Free Agency 2014, the Broncos were one of the busiest and loudest teams in the entire league, wrapping up two of the top defensive backs on the market, while generating a ton of buzz regarding two pass rushers.
First, the Broncos locked up Andre Caldwell to a two-year extension in Denver, no doubt as insurance with Eric Decker on the way out. Only an hour after free agency opened up, the Broncos announced they had worked out a deal with Browns All-Pro safety TJ Ward, signing him to a four-year deal, worth a total of $23 million, of which $14 million is guaranteed. Then, John Elway reminded everyone just how unpredictable he can be, signing Patriots All-Pro cornerback, Aqib Talib to a six-year deal worth $57 million ($26M guaranteed). On top of that, the Broncos are said to be the front-runners in the pursuit of both Demarcus Ware and Jared Allen, although the focus has shifted from Allen to Ware throughout the day. The deal with Ward likely eliminates a deal with veteran safety, Mike Adams. The Talib signing, which resulted in the Broncos removing their original offer to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, likely removes DRC from the 2014 picture, although nothing is set in stone. As far as former Broncos go, Zane Beadles was signed to a lucrative deal in Jacksonville, Wes Woodyard is drawing interest from numerous teams (most prominently the Patriots), and Eric Decker still has not reached a deal with another team, despite drawing serious interest from numerous teams. Quite the busy first day, to say the least, but a great busy day; here are seven reasons why the Broncos came out on top of the rest of the NFL on day one.
1. Safety became a priority, and at an efficient cost
TJ Ward is one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league and his acquisition provides the Broncos with one of the biggest playmaking safeties in the league. Mike Klis of the Denver Post wrote earlier in the week that the Broncos had spent too long treating safety as an afterthought, and he was completely right. The signing of Ward shows a shifting of this mentality, treating safety as a priority, and it shows a commitment to becoming more physical on defense. The good does not stop there though; John Elway, as he always seems to do, was able to make a deal work with an incredibly talented player for an incredibly efficient price. Ward's deal will see him earn an average of $5.5 million over the four years of the contract, $1.5 million less per year than Donte Whitner's new deal with the Browns, and blank less per year than Jairus Byrd's deal in New Orleans. Elway made safety a priority, signing a young All-Pro playmaker, and he did so at a remarkably low premium.
2. Bigger, stronger, more aggressive defense
The signings of both TJ Ward and Aqib Talib add physicality, tenacity, and size to a Broncos secondary that previously lacked these characteristics. While the Broncos may lose a little in coverage when swapping Talib for DRC, they acquire someone who is much more physical, a bigger presence in the run game, and stronger. Talib is a Pro-Bowl corner, who had 42 tackles, 4 interceptions, and allowed just 53.5% of passes thrown his way to be completed. Meanwhile, TJ Ward is a Pro-Bowl safety, who is known for his tackling and run prevention (112 total tackles and 29 run stops in 2013). Adding Ward and Talib creates a new, tougher identity on the Broncos defense and immediately makes them harder to play against. Fellow MHR writer, Bronco Mike summed it up perfectly in this tweet:
DRC is much more gifted athlete...but Talib is more physical. Ward, he's a hitter. This defense grew some balls today.— Mike G (@Bronco_Mike251) March 12, 2014
3. Reuniting old teammates, Talib and Harris
Not only does the acquisition of Talib bolster the secondary and give it a more formidable look, it also keeps one of the Broncos' best defensive players, Chris Harris Jr. happy. Harris and Talib both played for the Kansas Jayhawks in 2007, and are apparently "family" according to a tweet by Harris. The signing of Talib, along with the fact that Harris sent a welcome tweet to TJ Ward earlier in the day, quite nearly guarantees that Harris will sign the second round tender that he's been offered by the Broncos. Harris and Talib clearly have chemistry and could be a formidable duo in the Broncos' secondary in 2014, and hey, if Talib signing means Harris is more likely to, I'm more than okay with that.
4. Talib essentially replaces Champ, for the same price
No Broncos fan is going to tell you that it was easy to see the team release legendary corner, Champ Bailey. Champ contributed so much to the team, including a veteran presence and leadership, along with stellar play for many years. It was tough to see Champ go, but everyone knew it had to happen when they took one look at his contract and the $6M plus that he was due in 2014. Although some grumbled over Talib's contract (including myself), under which can earn an average of up to $9.5M annually over six years, it has been forgotten that this is the base salary that Champ Bailey was owed in 2014. I think it can be agreed upon by all that Talib is the much more effective corner at this point in both of the players' careers, and $9.5M spent towards him is money much more efficiently spent than if it were on Champ.
5. Blount now a possibility in Denver?
Now that Elway has beaten down on the Patriots time and time again, why not do so just one more time? LeGarrette Blount, a power running back who had a rejuvenation in 2013 for the Pats, and who also happens to be one of Talib's good friends, had this (amongst other things) to say about his friend after Talib signed with the Broncos.
@RSherman_25 in my opinion he the best bruh sorry... Can't change my mind...— LeGarrette Blount (@LG_Blount) March 12, 2014
Blount rained down praise for Talib on his Twitter account, including calling him the best corner in the league many times. What makes Blount's praise for, and friendship of Talib more intriguing is the fact that he is also a free agent. The Broncos have not reached a deal with free agent back Knowshon Moreno, and there is a chance that they'd like to add a veteran back to at least compete with Montee Ball for the 2014 starting role. While taking a shot on Blount may be a little risky, he showed that he can still play in 2013, and he would likely come cheaper than Moreno. Whether anything happens on this front or not, the possibility has opened up with the signing of Talib.
6. Cost-conscious choices
In a perfect world, the Broncos could have kept Zane Beadles, Eric Decker, and Wesley Woodyard under contract, with enough cap room to add the key players that they did; however, the NFL doesn't work like that. One of the most impressive aspects of Elway's efforts in free agency on the first day was his ability to decide who to keep around, and who to let walk. Sure, Zane Beadles was a very solid guard in his time with the Broncos, but the Jaguars were offering a much higher amount of money to Beadles, and Elway didn't see the need to offer the same to keep the guard around. The Broncos now have the option of adding to the guard position cheaply through the draft, or they can use their current depth to re-arrange the offensive line. One intriguing idea is to move Orlando Franklin to left guard, leaving Chris Clark to play right tackle, Louis Vasquez at right guard, Manny Ramirez at center, and Ryan Clady at left tackle. Regardless of how the team decides to fill Beadles' spot, it will undoubtedly be cheaper and smarter than retaining him at the same price the Jags paid. The same situation occurred with Eric Decker; why re-sign Decker, who is commanding number one receiver money, when you could sign Andre Caldwell, who performed very well in limited opportunities in 2013, to a cheaper contract? Elway made smart and cap-wise decisions with former Broncos, leaving him with funds to improve the team; I have confidence that this will continue.
7. All-in, right now
Most contenders in the NFL have an old QB right now. No point in making moves for the long term. Go all in every year until you can't.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) March 12, 2014
The moves that the Broncos made on Tuesday showed that they are not going to play around anymore; they know that the Super Bowl window grows smaller each year from now until Peyton Manning retires, and they are going to take their shot now. Demarcus Ware and Jared Allen are not exactly young guns, but they are proven veterans who can help the team win right now, and it is encouraging to see the team willing to acquire players like this. The money that Elway gave to Talib may have struck a sour note with some fans, but it shows a commitment to win quick, and win now. Management saw a need to bulk up defensively, and he went out and did something about it. The Broncos are all-in, right now, and the first day of free agency was a clear indication of that.
At the end of the first day of free agency, the Broncos brought in a number of key pieces, solidified themselves in the race for more key players, and made smart choices with their own free agents. All in all, a win for Elway and Denver on day one.