The NFL offseason is in full swing with the NFL Combine in the rearview and the start of the new league year fast approaching.
With the fast-paced/365 nature of the NFL, there is barely time for reflection on the past season before we're on to what's next for 2016 and how the Broncos will build the roster to make a run for a repeat title.
So, I thought we'd do a little bit of reflection to help prep us for the upcoming flurry of offseason activity. This is the first of a series focused on our front office where we will look at how well we have fared in the three key areas of roster building - player acquisition: free agency/draft and player retention.
Today we will look specifically at how we've done with free agency acquisitions in recent years (spoiler alert: it's pretty darn good).
Is free agency a viable, sustainable strategy for roster building?
The first thing I'll say is all the people that malign Denver for "buying a championship" or "mortgaging their future" - A) don't know what they're talking about as we have been one of the lowest teams in the league in dead money the last few years, and B) just wish their teams were as good as we are at playing the free agency market.
Elway's philosophy is that you want to go into the draft with no major holes in your roster so it frees you up to take the best player available at a position that can contribute. The reason Denver has used free agency so often in recent years is due to the dearth of draft talent on the team (thanks, McDaniels).
Ideally, you want the bulk of your cap going towards homegrown players, but early in Elway's tenure, we had very few homegrown players worth keeping and thus had a lot of cap space. This is why you see bottom dweller teams typically with the most cap space every year because they have no good players of their own on whom to spend their money.
Why do I mention all of that? I believe we have seen a shift in a new way of playing free agency last year that will continue as long as we continue to draft well. Gone are the days of signing four superstars in one off-season; because we are, instead, spending that money on keeping our own guys. But, this is not a bad thing! We will see as we dig into this that Elway has been just as adept at shopping in the bargain bin for free agents as he has when shopping on the top shelf.
Big-ticket free agents
Every year teams swing for the fences and open their checkbooks (if we still use fax machines, they gotta still be using checkbooks right?) for that big ticket guy who is going to turn their franchise around. And every year, teams are disappointed as they watch their supposed franchise savior crash and burn. But not the Denver Broncos!
Peyton Manning - 5 years, $96 million/$18 million guaranteed.
There's nothing I could say that hasn't already been said except that after watching his retirement press conference it was abundantly clear that had John Elway not handled the process the way that he did back in 2012, Peyton Manning would not have been a Bronco.
Demarcus Ware - 3 years, $30 million/$20 million guaranteed.
Demarcus Ware had the 13th highest pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus this year and logged double-digit sacks (including playoffs) both years he has been here. In addition, to his play on the field, his leadership, and mentorship in the locker room has been just as (if not more) valuable.
Aqib Talib - 6 years, $57 million/$25 million guaranteed.
Aqib has brought a physical, ball-hawking presence to our secondary since the day he arrived. He matches up well across from Harris and Roby, and is a good value for a #1 corner, especially as contracts continue to go up. Finished the season as the 28th ranked CB by PFF.
TJ Ward - 4 years, $22.5 million/$14 million guaranteed.
I remember thinking what a steal we got when Elway signed TJ Ward. The Browns turned around and spent more money replacing TJ than we did to bring him here, and we've gotten better production from him as well. He graded out as PFF's 10th ranked safety in 2015.
Elway has bucked the trend of growing a core of players solely through the draft and has really put together a nice core of veteran players from this crew of free agents above. It is extremely rare for big ticket FA signings to play out their contracts with the team, but it looks like TJ and Ware will, and Manning pretty much counts since he retired with one year left. Talib likely won't see the end of his, but that's a different blog post.
Emmanuel Sanders - 3 years, $15 million
I nearly put him up in the first category, but his price tag didn't really fit. He is one the most successful signings of Elway's tenure, in my opinion. The dude was completely under the radar and has exceeded expectations at every turn. He is on the list of "salary bargains" in a piece done by Inside The Pylon on WRs.
Louis Vasquez - 4 years, $23.5 million
Wes Welker - 2 years, $12 million
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - 2 years, $10 million
Evan Mathis - 1 year, $3.25 million
3rd overall guard by PFF. First overall in run blocking.
Others: Tight End trio Joel Dressen, Jacob Tamme, Owen Daniels, Joe Mays, Tracy Porter
This group is where Elway has really picked up some value and hasn't hesitated to cut guys when they overstay their welcome or have little dead money. The name of the game in this tier - low risk/high reward, and, for the most part, we have gotten more rewards than not. Mays was a bit of a dud, and Owen being cut kinda pushes him into that category a little bit, although he did contribute down the stretch, especially in the playoffs.
Bargain Bin Pickups
This group is important because it is where we will most likely be spending the majority of the current free agency period as well as subsequent ones. Again, as we said above, this is not necessarily a bad thing as it means we are using our money for player retention, not acquisition.
For the sake of this discussion, I am picking out the most impactful bargain bin players as opposed to listing every single one.
Darian Stewart - 2 years, $4.25 million
Who here called Darian Stewart being one of our most consistent playmakers on our defense? I sure didn't. After googling who he was, I was just hoping he wouldn't screw things up. I could see Darian getting a 2nd contract from Elway after this year. He was a top 10 ranked safety by PFF most of the season. His final grade dropped a little bit after the playoffs, but he still finished 16th overall.
Terrance Knighton - 2 years, $4.5 million
Pot roast was not only a fan favorite and a great twitter follow, but he was a big part of our run defense's success under JDR's scheme.
Vance Walker - 2 years, $4 million
Great rotational contributor, could play an even bigger role this year with Jackson gone. Graded out by PFF as the 27th overall defensive interior player.
Ryan Harris - 1 year, $1.4 million
Starting LT on a Super Bowl Champion is nothing to sneeze at. It wasn't always pretty, but he sure came in handy.
Andre Caldwell - 2 year, $1.8 million | 2 years, $2.7 million
Like him or not, he has been a solid contributor on the cheap.
In an era where most teams are lucky to get one or two years out of their big time free agents (I'm looking at you Eagles, Dolphins, and Bucs), we have enjoyed an unprecedented hit rate on our big free agent spends and have consistently had our mid-tier and bargain bin free agents exceed their contract value with solid/great production.
Hopefully, this gives us confidence during the upcoming free agency period that we're in good hands, as this is clearly been Elway's most successful arena since coming aboard. While we are unlikely to continue our high roller status in free agency, we have an aggressive GM who isn't afraid to go after a guy who he thinks can help our team if the price is right.
Stay tuned for the next parts of the series where we'll take on the second part of player acquisition - the draft, and player retention. Also, let me know in the comments if I missed any guys, or you agree/disagree with my assessments. Let's discuss!
Editor's Note: This is a contributor's post as part of a staff tryout at MHR. Let Nasty J know your thoughts on his piece in the comments! And be nice.