The Denver Broncos will be in their first Super Bowl since John Elway played his last game. They're heading back to the big game thanks in large part to the same man who led them there as a quarterback in 1999. Elway's presence as executive vice president of football operations gave the Broncos a whole new identity and newfound respect around the NFL. If Elway was not in charge, the Broncos likely wouldn't have lured Peyton Manning to sign following his release from the Colts.
Elway was placed in charge of football operations after GM Brian Xanders left the team following the 2011 season. Elway then took over football operations and had final say in every matter. Under his watch, the Broncos added key pieces to their Super Bowl roster, signing Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips, Louis Vasquez and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, among others.
Even the short-lived and chaotic Josh McDaniels era played a part in building this team. Think about it; if McDaniels hadn't traded Jay Cutler, the Broncos' QB situation likely wouldn't have gotten to the point where they could get Manning to swoop right in and take the job.
Another key factor is that the Broncos still have a lot of young star players. They have their share of veterans with Manning, Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer and Shaun Phillips, but this team has gotten production from players still playing under their rookie contracts as well. That allowed them the cap space to sign their missing pieces and build this team.
We can go back to the last season of the Mike Shanahan era. In the 2008 draft, the Broncos selected tackle Ryan Clady 12th overall, who has gone on to become an All-Pro in the NFL. Unfortunately, he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 of this season and was placed on injured reserve. Luckily, Chris Clark has filled in nicely for the Broncos, as illustrated in the dominant performance of the team's o-line during their AFC championship win over New England.
The Broncos' offensive line certainly benefits from Manning's ability to get rid of the football quickly, but it must be recognized that Denver's front office did a fine job assembling this group in the first place. Teams don't make it to the Super Bowl without a terrific offensive line. Chris Clark was an undrafted free agent signed by Tampa Bay in 2008 and made his way to Denver in 2010. It's incredible how the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes weren't dashed when Clark stepped in. When you get that kind of production from a left tackle counting for a mere $1.5 million against the cap, it's highway robbery for an NFL team.
Rounding out the rest of the unit is 2010 second-round draft pick Zane Beadles, who's in the final year of his rookie deal, counting for just over $1 million on this year's cap. Center Manny Ramirez's cap number is $1.2 million and he has played the starting role all season since JD Walton has been unable to recover from an ankle injury. Louis Vasquez has helped the running game immensely. The Broncos signed Vasquez to a four-year deal last March and he has lived up to his $3.25 million cap number. Orlando Franklin is not an elite pass protector at right tackle, but he sure is stout against the run.
Not only did this group keep Peyton Manning upright the whole season, they allowed him to set NFL records in passing touchdowns in a season (55) and single-season passing yards (5,477).
Knowshon Moreno also benefited the team's running game, playing in all 16 games for the first time since his 2009 rookie year and setting career highs in rushing yards (1,038) and rushing touchdowns (10). He also had 60 receptions for 548 yards and three TDs. Moreno is in the last year of his rookie contract, accounting for a $3.2 million cap hit. He's producing what the Broncos envisioned when they drafted him 12th overall in 2009.
The Broncos have also built the most well-balanced, dynamic receiving corps in all of football. Everybody plays a key role and finds ways to contribute. Demaryius Thomas is the stud of the group, and is also playing out his rookie contract. The Broncos took him 22nd overall in 2010 - Josh McDaniels' first draft pick as Denver's head coach. Thomas was named All-Pro this season, all while earning $2.5 million. No wonder Denver has such a short Super Bowl window. Thomas had 92 catches for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns. While he's the unquestioned no.1 receiver, it's the group's depth that makes it potent and scary.
Eric Decker is no slouch himself. In that same draft year, the Broncos took Decker in the third round. He's also still playing under his rookie deal, which accounted for a mere $1.5 million. He contributed 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns this past season. Decker is a free agent this offseason and yet another steal for Denver with what he's making.
Wes Welker was the prize of Denver's 2013 offseason, lured out of New England with a two-year, $12 million deal. He gave the Broncos 61 catches, for 648 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 10 games played.
The emergence of tight end Julius Thomas gave Denver some extra added value. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Thomas had just one catch in two years before exploding this season. He produced 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Yes, he's also on his rookie deal, with a cap hit of $655,000.
The production the Broncos have received on offense for what they've paid not only made them the best offense in football, (and arguably history), but it also made them the best bargain of any attack in the NFL. This season they scored 37.9 points per game. Peyton Manning's signing in 2012 was of course the most pivotal part of building a Super Bowl team. This group was also obviously a lot more talented than anyone gave them credit for prior to Manning's arrival. Manning counts for $17.5 million against the cap, but that's a price you're willing to pay for a man who's soon to be named MVP and who just had the most prolific season from a quarterback in NFL history.
The Broncos suffered a large share of injuries on defense this year, yet still found the production they needed.
On the defensive line, the Broncos added Shaun Phillips in the offseason. The modest $1.4 million cap hit proved to be of great value to Denver, as Phillips experienced a resurgence in a new city. The longtime Charger had 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and even an interception. A guy who was seen as an inadequate replacement for Elivs Dumervil did everything Denver asked of him and more. He played a bigger role than expected, due to Von Miller's six-game suspension and subsequent torn ACL late in the season.
Robert Ayers is a solid player on the other edge who was a Denver first-round pick in 2009. His cap hit is $2.2 million and he has been a solid presence for the Broncos all season.
On the inside of the defensive line, Terrance Knighton made quite a name for himself in the AFC Championship with a key sack on Tom Brady on 4th down. The former Jaguar was brought in on a two-year deal, reuniting with Jack Del Rio, his former coach. His partner Sylvester Williams was a first-round pick in 2013. The rookie brings a $1.3 million cap hit, playing in 13 games this season. Denver was stout against the run all season, seventh in the NFL, due to their front four's consistent play.
The linebacking corps of Nate Irving, Paris Lenon and Danny Trevathan certainly helped in that area too. Irving has done a fine job filling in for Von Miller on the strong side. Trevathan is their most dynamic linebacker, and also counts for a mere $500,000 on the salary cap.
Denver's secondary struggled this season, primarily due to injuries and Champ Bailey's age catching up with him. Bailey counts for $10.7 million against the cap and he may have to take a cut in pay in order to remain with Denver beyond this season. He certainly has experience and leadership value, but he's clearly on the downside of his career. Denver's shining star in the secondary was Chris Harris, but he suffered a torn ACL against San Diego in the playoffs. He was another case of one of Denver's premier players earning less than what he should have for his production, at just over half a million.
Luckily for Denver, former Pro-Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has regained his swagger. He worked under a $2.9 million cap hit and he's coming back into his own. He'll play a huge part in Denver's chances of shutting down Seattle next Sunday. Tony Carter will be starting on the other side, as he's filling in for Harris. Carter did a decent job against New England and will have to repeat that in the Super Bowl.
Safeties Mike Adams and Duke Ihenacho both bring their own qualities to the defense, with Adams making plays on the football and Ihenacho delivering big hits. Ihenacho is another undrafted player, thus earning a low salary and Adams accounts for $2.2 million on the cap.
Even Denver's kicker provides huge value. Matt Prater may be the most clutch kicker in football, as he regularly boots 50+ yard field goals with ease. He even set a record this season with a 64-yarder. He was 25-of-26 this season and made seven field goals over 50 yards. He actually holds the fifth-highest cap hit on the team at over $3 million, but he's definitely worth it.
Punter Britton Colquitt wasn't a busy man this season, as he's rarely called upon to punt with this offense. His cap number is $2 million and he's a quality punter and does the job when necessary.
Denver was able to build its roster thanks to unbelievable value it received from its young players. Its dominant receiving corps helped people forget about Brandon Marshall, one of the game's best, due to their unbelievable depth and dominance. Their offensive line was patched together and stuck. Their backfield is a secondary portion of the offense and the floodgates have opened for them this season. Their defense plays with a lead in most games, allowing them to rush the passer and play aggressively. This team was loaded with talent, missing pieces were added through the last couple of offseasons and Peyton Manning was the one that brought everything together.
While Manning will be what people remember about this Broncos team, we must keep in mind that Denver's scouting department did a fantastic job of finding these stars through the draft and figuring out a way to utilize players that no other team saw a use for.
What Denver has done is proof that you don't have to spend a ton of money in free agency every offseason. It's all about making the smart signings. The core of your team has to be composed of your own draft picks.
We don't know how many years Peyton Manning has left in the NFL, but Denver saw that they had the talent to compete for a Super Bowl if they added him this year and they've been proven right. They knew their window was short after signing Manning and they're one win away from completely validating themselves, if they haven't already.
Denver may find it tough to keep many of their key players this offseason, as several of their youngsters have expiring deals. Manning will undergo some tests on his neck in March, as reported by espn.com. While he has said he plans to play in 2014, win or lose, there is the possibility that Super Bowl XLVIII could be his last game. Beyond this season, the challenge will be keeping their core intact and determining if Brock Osweiler is to be Manning's successor.
For now, Denver can be proud of the job they've done building this team. They've perhaps found the most value out of their players of any team in the NFL, with the possible exception of the team they're facing for the Super Bowl. The bottom line here is that Denver built themselves a team competing for the Super Bowl and Manning was the last and most important piece of the puzzle. John Elway may soon be a hero in the front office, as he was so often the hero on the field.