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(Artice) John Elway, Hall of Fame quarterback, has built the NFL's best defense

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  • (Artice) John Elway, Hall of Fame quarterback, has built the NFL's best defense

    Derek Wolfe isn’t the first guy you think about on the Denver Broncos’ defense. He’s probably not second or third and maybe not even seventh or eighth.

    And Wolfe was just named the AFC defensive player of the week.

    This is why the Broncos have the best defense in the NFL, and arguably the NFL’s best defense in many years (of course, the 2013-14 Seattle Seahawks might say there is no argument). Broncos general manager John Elway put great thought and effort into assembling a defense that doesn't have a weak link among the starters and plenty of starting-level players coming off the bench. Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, is credited for landing Peyton Manning in one of the great free-agent coups in NFL history, but he has done some of his best work assembling Denver's defense. Elway used all of his available resources, whether it was high draft picks, finding undrafted stars, getting players who came cheaper because of off-field issues, spending big money in free agency or getting a free-agent bargain.

    Here's how the best defense in football was built by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever (all quotes from the Broncos' transcripts):

    2009: S David Bruton (fourth-round draft pick)

    Bruton is the only player on the 2015 defense who Elway inherited. Mostly a special teams player through his career, Bruton has excelled this season in his role as a safety/linebacker in the dime package. Elway is responsible for retaining Bruton, signing him to a three-year, $4.5 million deal before the 2013 season.

    2011: OLB Von Miller (second overall draft pick) and CB Chris Harris (undrafted free agent)

    In many ways it shouldn’t be surprising that Elway has built arguably the NFL’s best set of cornerbacks and the league-leading defense in sacks. When Elway played he studied cornerbacks and pass rushers during the week. And at the 2011 combine he admitted cornerbacks and pass rushers are the positions he felt most comfortable scouting.

    “I know what I liked to go against and I know what I did not like to go against,” Elway said. “The way I thought about guys and when I was watching film, was more about playing against them.”

    When the Broncos had the second pick in 2011, many thought they’d go with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Defensive tackle was a huge need. Instead, Dareus went No. 3 to the Buffalo Bills and has been an excellent player there.

    Instead, Elway went with a player who might have reminded him of Kansas City Chiefs foe Derrick Thomas: Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller.

    “Dareus is going to have a long career and a great career and he is a great player,” Elway said after that draft. “I really think that we looked at Von and the difference to me was that he is one of those guys that comes along once in 10 years and a guy that has a chance to be dynamic on the football field. He is a guy, as I have said so many times, when you turn on the film you do not need to know what number he is.”

    Miller might not be Thomas — few in NFL history have been — but he’s one of the best pass rushers in the league, a former All-Pro and a foundation player of the Broncos’ defense. Elway couldn't have made a wrong call between Miller and Dareus, but he likely has no regrets about his decision.

    Harris came at a much different price. He was an undrafted free agent. And you have to get a little lucky with those players. If the Broncos really thought Harris would blossom into one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, they would have drafted him. Instead they gave him a $2,000 signing bonus after he wasn’t picked. But credit the Broncos’ brass for this — they saw right away that Harris was one of those rare undrafted free agents.

    “I can still remember the first time we took the field, and the first two practices, he stood out. And I said, ‘We have something here,’” Elway said when Harris signed a $42.5 million extension last year. “I think it’s about the mentality. A lot of times you get in those first couple practices, especially those young guys, you see them, they get intimidated by all of a sudden being here and they’re on the field with the Denver Broncos. And Chris was not a guy who looked out of place out there.”

    2012: DE Derek Wolfe (second-round pick), DE Malik Jackson (fifth-round pick), ILB Danny Trevathan (sixth-round pick)

    The Broncos’ 2012 draft shows the value of late picks in building a defense from top to bottom.

    Wolfe was a second-round pick, Denver's first pick after Elway traded back and out of the first round. Then with Denver’s last two picks they nabbed Jackson in the fifth round and Trevathan in the sixth. And in the fourth round the Broncos took Omar Bolden, who has been a contributor at safety (though he has been injured much of this season).

    Elway talked about being more comfortable in his second draft. That led to a few very good picks.

    Wolfe was considered a bit of a reach in the second round. But he had the mentality Elway liked, spending his teenage years working on a farm in a tiny Ohio town.

    “You can see that’s what makes him the player that he is, and that’s what will make us hungry on defense,” Elway said after the draft. “He’s going to rub off on a lot of guys, because he’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”

    Trevathan was considered undersized, and was working through an injury in the pre-draft process, which didn’t help his stock. The Broncos got great value on him, and Jackson too.

    Trevathan, when healthy, has been a tackling and play-making machine. Wolfe and Jackson are both similar players: fantastic run defenders at about 290 pounds who are also athletic enough to also provide a pass rush. None of these three are superstars, but they’re good players who contribute in a big way to the depth and overall strength of the defense. This was a crucial draft for Elway and the defense.

    2013: NT Sylvester Williams (first-round pick), ILB Brandon Marshall (free agent)

    It is probably safe to say Williams has been a bit of a disappointment, given his draft status. But he does fill a role as a big, 313-pound run-stuffing interior defender. Nose tackle was a need and at least the Broncos got someone who can contribute there.

    “He was a guy that we’ve been looking for, a young anchor in the middle of the defensive line, for some time and were able to find a good one that has a chance to be a great one,” Elway said after the draft.

    Marshall was a nice find. A 2012 fifth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he had been waived three times by the Jaguars when the Broncos signed him to their practice squad at the start of the 2013 season. He spent almost the entire 2013 season on Denver's practice squad before being signed to the active roster in Week 17. Then last year, Marshall was Denver’s leading tackler. Elway talked about how well he thought Marshall would fit in the defense. It was another no-cost find that paid off big.

    Part 1.

    Fantastic, in depth read. Enjoy.

  • #2

    2014: CB Bradley Roby (first-round pick), OLB DeMarcus Ware, S T.J. Ward and CB Aqib Talib (unrestricted free agents), OLB Shaq Barrett (undrafted free agent)

    This was the offseason that showed Elway had a high priority to build a top defense. He wasn't a GM who leaned offense based on his playing background. And he wanted a defense with a fierce identity.

    The Broncos didn’t need Roby necessarily, considering they had two of the NFL's best cornerbacks already, though Harris was coming back off an ACL injury. But a nickel cornerback isn’t a luxury in today’s NFL; you better have a good one. In Roby, Denver got a corner who could probably be a regular starter for 25 or so other NFL teams. It was also a smart move to nab the best player available. Elway said Roby was the highest rated player left on Denver’s board “by a long shot.” Elway has consistently preached that the Broncos will draft the best available player regardless of need.

    The Broncos also took a bit of a chance on Roby; Elway said “there’s no question” Roby would have gone before No. 31 if he didn’t have off-field red flags. He has had no public off-field incidents since he was drafted. Roby was also the kind of tough, aggressive defensive player Elway wants.

    “He’ll stick his nose in there in the run game and he’ll tackle, and he’ll fit right in with the defense we’re putting together right now,” Elway said after Roby was picked.

    Without three strong cornerbacks, the Broncos might not be able to play the style of defense they do now. The Broncos can be aggressive up front because they know all three cornerbacks can hold up in man coverage. Against the Packers, that style was a huge reason Denver held Green Bay quarterback and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards.

    Barrett was a nice low-key depth addition, an in-state college player at Colorado State who had a great preseason this year and has been a nice contributor as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

    The Broncos also had an incredibly aggressive offseason in free agency in 2014. Remember Elway having an appreciation for corners and pass rushers? He got Talib, a big, physical corner who can turn in a pick-six on any play, and Ware, possibly a future Hall of Famer who was let go by Dallas in a cost-cutting move and looked like he might be losing a step.

    “We know from watching on tape how much more football he has in him,” Elway said after signing Ware.

    Elway was right. Ware has played very well with the Broncos with 15.5 sacks in 22 games. Ward, an aggressive, hitting safety, rounded out the trio of big-money signees. The Broncos spent about $60 million in guaranteed money on that trio.

    The Broncos were coming off a season in which they had the highest-scoring offense in NFL history and made the Super Bowl. But Elway knew, after losing to the defensive-minded Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, that wouldn’t be enough. And he wanted defensive players who played a certain aggressive style.

    “The philosophy was to try to get the best football players with the right mentality,” Elway said the day before training camp opened in 2014. “I think that we’ve got to get to be where we’re a complete football team. We can’t rely on 18 (Peyton Manning) to win it because he can’t win it by himself. So I think what we’ve done defensively, especially with DeMarcus Ware and the leadership ability there, and Aqib, as well as T.J. and the leadership that they’ve brought is the defense to have their identity. And they want to have their identity, take pride in what they do and not have to rely on that offense to bail us out.”

    2015: OLB Shane Ray (first-round pick), DE Antonio Smith, DT Vance Walker and S Darian Stewart (unrestricted free agents)

    One of the biggest moves for the Broncos wasn't for the roster, but in hiring Wade Phillips to be their defensive coordinator to replace Jack Del Rio, who took the head-coaching job with the Oakland Raiders. Phillips, out of football in 2014, is a tremendous coordinator and he is having a fine season.

    Ray fell in the first round in part because he was cited for possession of marijuana before the draft. That didn’t deter Elway.

    “He was very remorseful. He realized he made a mistake. He told me it wasn’t going to happen again. We feel like we’ve got a great support system for him,” Elway said.

    Ray is injured now but is a pass-rushing menace who should be able to help late in the season and beyond this year. Like Roby, the Broncos didn't necessarily have a strong need for Ray. But he was a player Elway had ranked so high that he traded up to select him at No. 23 overall.

    Smith was a low-cost veteran signing who provides depth, and the Broncos stuck with him even when he was investigated on a criminal complaint of child abuse. Smith has not been charged.

    Stewart signed a two-year, $4.25 million contract this past offseason, a modest investment to make sure the Broncos had a veteran (Stewart played five years with the Rams and Ravens before signing with Denver) to replace Rahim Moore at free safety. Moore signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Houston this past offseason. Elway has made sure through his moves that there are simply no weaknesses to exploit on Denver’s defense. The same mentality applied to signing Walker to a two-year, $4 million deal. Walker, a former Chief, has provided solid depth in a rotational role.

    The Broncos don’t spend many snaps with any liability on the field due to Elway’s efforts in using all possible outlets to build a deep, fantastic defense.
    Part 2......


    • #3

      Great article Peerless !!!


      May God Bless all men and women of our Armed Forces, past and present
      The Only Thing Necessary For The Triumph Of Evil Is For Good Men To Do Nothing
      My Adopted Bronco is #95 Derek Wolfe


      • #4
        :lombardi:2019 Adopt-A-Bronco: Dr. Dre'Mont Jones


        • #5
          We got a lot of good picks but the glue that put it all together was Wade Phillips. On a national level he does not get the credit he deserves for building a defense that carried an offense to a Ring in an era that completely favors the offense and qbs.

          Not sure why we let Wade go but imo not keeping Wade was one of the worst moves Elway made. Wade+these def players had the potential to win Championships regardless if we were able to completely fix the holes on offense or not

          I know we rated good with Vance and Woods but it does not feel like a dominating play making defense that Wade led.

          Hopefully the defense turns the corner and starts to be dominant play makers again but to me it seems the more I watch this year the more of the "edge" we lose every game.
          Let's Ride!