Denver Broncos fans knew going into the 2015 offseason that the Broncos had a lot of key players who were set to hit free agency. Four of the bigger names (Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Rahim Moore) have headed off elsewhere, while the Broncos' free agency moves have mostly focused on lower-priced players, leading to silly questions like the one that led off Andrew Mason's most recent mailbag.
The Broncos fans asking this question no doubt remember what happened last season, when the Broncos seemed to be the landing spot for a lot of the big names in free agency. DeMarcus Ware! Aqib Talib! T.J. Ward! Emmanuel Sanders! Look at all the money the Broncos are spending!
And, of course, this led to the narrative that John Elway was going "all in" for a Super Bowl win. So, the narrative continues, Elway better go "all in" this season now that Peyton Manning is coming back for another season, because time is running out!
But the truth is, Elway has approached free agency cautiously, and does not just blindly throw money around. Last season might seem like an exception, but not exactly. Let's take a stroll down Memory Lane and see exactly how Elway approached free agency.
2011: The first season Elway was making personnel decisions, he faced the same situation everyone else did: The collective bargaining agreement expired and teams had to wait until a new agreement was reached before free agency could begin. Teams could re-sign their own players prior to the end of the 2010 league year, and the draft took place as usual, but that was it until August.
Elway did make a big move in retaining one of the Broncos' own, as Champ Bailey re-signed for four years at $43 million, with $22 million guaranteed... certainly not a sign of the Broncos being cheap. Once the new CBA took effect, some Broncos fans expected Elway to start rushing into free agency to grab anybody he could. Instead, he gave a low-cost deal to Willis McGahee (four years, $9.5M, $3M guaranteed), a short-term deal to Ty Warren (two years, $10M, $2.5M guaranteed), and traded a late-round pick for Broderick Bunkley. That doesn't sound like somebody making a splash in free agency, does it?
It's fair to point out the Warren signing didn't pan out, but even then, it was just $2.5 million the Broncos had no choice but to pay him, and in Warren's second season, he had to take a pay cut to stay with the team. McGahee, though, exceeded expectations, and Bunkley played very well in his single season with the team. McGahee and Bunkley were the first two instances of Elway finding value in a player.
2012: Everyone knows about Elway courting Peyton Manning and that Manning ultimately chose the Broncos. But while Manning was taking his time making a decision, the only other free agency move Elway made was signing Mike Adams to a two-year, $4M contract. And I can remember Broncos fans getting impatient, wondering what would happen if Manning spurned the Broncos and left Elway with nothing.
After Manning agreed to terms with Denver, and certainly got compensated well (five years, $96M, $18M fully guaranteed after passing his physical -- and he has collected more money since), that compensation included conditions pertaining to Manning's neck and passing future physicals. And after that, the free agents who came to the Broncos were noteworthy more because of a certain connection. Jacob Tamme (three years, $9M, $3.5M guaranteed) was the teammate of Manning who followed him to Denver. Tracy Porter (one year, $4M) was the guy who had a pick six of Manning in a Super Bowl. And Joel Dreessen (three years, $8.5M) was a Colorado native and Colorado State University graduate.
But Manning aside, every free agent Elway signed was, once again, a value signing. And of those free agents, Porter was the only one who didn't pan out, and his was just a one-year deal. Once again, Elway wasn't going around committing top dollar to a bunch of players, even as he focused on one big-ticket player.
2013: This offseason was most noteworthy for the guy Elway signed away from a conference rival: Wes Welker. Of course, given that Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady is the QB showdown everyone talks about, it wouldn't matter which favorite target of either QB was signed away by the other team -- it would have drawn headlines, because Manning vs. Brady. Then again, the money Welker got (two years, $12M), while not exactly cheap, was far less than what some expected Welker to get.
Meanwhile, Elway signed offensive guard Louis Vasquez for four years at $23M, with $10M guaranteed. Again, that's not a cheap contract, but the average of $5.875M per year looks pretty good compared to the likes of Jahri Evans ($8M APY), Logan Mankins ($8.5M APY), and Andy Levitre ($7.8M APY), all players who were considered to be better than Vasquez at the time Vasquez agreed to terms with the Broncos.
Elway also gave $5M to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but it was a one-year deal, not the long-term commitment DRC was no doubt expecting. And then comes Elway's steal of free agency, as he paid a mere $4M over two years to Terrance Knighton.
As far as going out and spending a good chunk of change, Elway did that with one player. Ryan Clady was given the franchise tag when the 2013 offseason began, then ultimately agreed to a five-year, $52.5M contract, with $15M fully guaranteed, and an additional $16.5M in injury-only guaranteed, plus a $1.5M roster bonus that happens to be due this season. Since it appears likely Clady will stay with the Broncos through 2015, that means he'll collect $33 million in salary. Sarcasm alert: THE BRONCOS ARE BEING SO CHEAP.
Back to seriousness: What Elway did was reward one of the Broncos' better players, limited a long-term free agent deal to Vasquez, and kept the others on short-term deals, one which proved to be excellent value (Knighton), and the other three proving to be pretty good value for what they were paid. Elway's strategy should be pretty evident by now.
2014: Okay, so this is the year in which Elway was, on the surface, freely spending money. DeMarcus Ware's three-year deal was for $30M, and he'll get $20M of that for sure. Aqib Talib's six-year deal was for $57M, and he will get $17.5M of that so far. T.J. Ward got $22.5M over four years, of which he will receive $13.5M. And Emmanuel Sanders got $15M over three years, of which $6M was guaranteed.
However, a closer look tells us a few things. First, Sanders was a value signing, as the $6M guaranteed he got is the most the Broncos will pay him in a single season. He'll collect $4.85M in base salary this year and $5M next year -- a bargain for a veteran No. 2 receiver. Then there's Ward, whose average salary per year isn't even in the top 10 among safeties. And I'm sure every Bronco fan would rather have Ward than, for example, Jairus Byrd, who averages $9M per year (and happened to be a free agent the same offseason Ward was).
Then we come to Ware, who the Broncos certainly committed a lot of cash to, but they can cut Ware after the 2015 season and not owe him another penny. It is fair, though, for people to say that the Broncos made a massive commitment to Ware, in which they were effectively tied to him for two years at $20 million.
That isn't exactly the case with Talib, who the Broncos could have cut after 2014 if things didn't work out, and not owe him another penny. That's because Talib's 2015 salary was guaranteed for injury only, and the Broncos would owe him nothing had he been cut for any other reason. He is still on the payroll, so yes, the Broncos owe him another $6 million ($5.5M base, $500,000 roster bonus). Next season, his $8.5M base salary is an injury-only guarantee, so the Broncos could cut him for performance-related reasons and not owe him anything. If that were to happen, Talib doesn't even collect one-third of the total money in his contract.
Once again, the strategy Elway employed is clear: Look for value in a player and protect yourself when it comes to a long-term commitment -- and in the case of looking for value, Sanders and Ward certainly proved to be value finds.
2015: Yes, it's tough to see Julius Thomas and Orlando Franklin depart because other teams offered big-money deals. Yes, the Broncos might have misjudged the market when Knighton and Rahim Moore took value deals elsewhere. I can understand Broncos fans criticizing Elway for not retaining Knighton and Moore when the teams who signed them didn't pay a lot of money to do so.
But let's not forget Elway went out of his way to retain Chris Harris, who got five years and $42.5M in an extension he signed back in December, of which at least $10M was fully guaranteed. Along with Clady, the Broncos ultimately extended Matt Prater after placing the franchise tag on him, so there's a good chance they will do the same with Demaryius Thomas.
And then there's a guy by the name of Von Miller, who enters the option year of his rookie contract at $9.75M. The Broncos could always opt to let him play out that year, then place the franchise tag on him next season. But if Miller puts together a strong 2015, it wouldn't be surprising to see Elway become more aggressive in getting him signed to a long-term deal, much like he did with Harris once he saw the cornerback had fully recovered from an ACL injury.
As for the other signings, Elway seems more concerned with getting value from the likes of Owen Daniels (three years, $12M, $3M guaranteed), Vance Walker (two years, $4M -- hmm, sound familiar?), Shelley Smith (two years, $5.65M) and Darian Stewart (terms not yet released, but likely a low-cost signing). The same holds true for the re-signing of Virgil Green (three years, $8.4M, $2.5M fully guaranteed).
The perception that the Broncos are being cheap, simply based on what they did last season, is silly. Many of the Broncos' best free agent signings have been in the value department (McGahee, Adams, Knighton, Sanders, Ward, arguably Vasquez) while the biggest contracts either went to retaining Broncos (Bailey, Clady, Harris) or to players considered elite at their position (Manning, Ware, Talib), but contained provisions to ensure the Broncos weren't tied down to the players for too long.
The strategy has worked thus far for Elway, as the Broncos have never missed the playoffs since he took over team operations. Maybe Broncos fans who accuse him of being cheap, need to admit that, regarding free agency, he may actually know what he is doing.