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9 best Broncos free agents in Elway era

As another free agency looms, Bronco fans are counting on the GM to help bring the team back to the postseason.
Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Brandon Marshall (54), Chris Harris (25), Aqib Talib (21) and T.J. Ward (43) pose for team photos before an NFL football walk through practice in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway can fix it in a hurry.

He should have roughly $57 million to spend in free agency that unofficially begins in eight days. And even after acquiring starting cornerback A.J. Bouye in a trade last week, Elway still has five draft picks in the first three rounds in late-April.

After missing the playoffs the previous four years but winning four of their last five in 2019 behind first-year head coach Vic Fangio and rookie quarterback Drew Lock, the Broncos can return to January football again if Elway hits on his offseason moves.

He’s done it before, never more so than in 2014 when his free agency class included DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders, all of whom made the Pro Bowl in their first season with the team.

The negotiating window of free agency opens Monday, March 16. To mark the occasion, here are the Broncos’ top 9 free agents signed during the Elway era that began in 2011:

Credit: AP
Peyton Manning (AP/Julio Cortez)

1. Peyton Manning, quarterback

Fifty years from now, this will likely still be the best free agent signing in Broncos history. The Broncos wound up paying Manning $77 million over four years -- $19.25 million per season.

In return, Manning led the Broncos to records of 13-3, 13-3, 12-4 and 7-2 – 45-12 overall – with four first-round bye playoff berths and two Super Bowl appearances

He set still standing single-season passing records in 2013 when he led the Broncos to their seventh Super Bowl appearance.

He came off the bench to rally the Broncos to their eighth Super Bowl game and third Lombardi Trophy in 2015 to cap his final season.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2017, file photo, Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) takes a knee prior to an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, in Denver. Talib is bummed out. Like so many football fans, the Denver Broncos star cornerback was eager for his marquee matchup this weekend with Odell Beckham Jr. before the Giants star receiver broke his left ankle against the Chargers last week. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

2. Aqib Talib, cornerback

He went to four Pro Bowls in his four seasons with the Broncos after signing a six-year, $57 million contract. More remarkable was his six interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Although prone to drama on and off the field, Talib was probably the second-best defensive player to Von Miller on some outstanding Denver defensive units.

DeMarcus Ware (AP/Jack Dempsey)

3. DeMarcus Ware, outside linebacker

It’s too bad his back gave out but he was dominant in the 2015 postseason especially in the AFC Championship Game when he had an astounding 7 quarterback hits on Tom Brady. Ware added 2.0 sacks against Cam Newton in the Super Bowl.

As much as his production, Ware was a steadying influence and strong mentor to Von Miller at a time when Miller was coming off his suspension-riddled 2013 season.

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) celebrates his touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

4. Emmanuel Sanders, receiver

For three years and $15 million, Sanders gave the Broncos at least 1,000 yards receiving each of those three years. He was the Broncos’ top receiver in Super Bowl 50 with six catches for 83 yards.

Ankle problems robbed some of his effectiveness in 2017-18, but he bounced back enough last year to give the Broncos a third- and fourth-round draft pick in a midseason trade with the 49ers. While Sanders went on to play in another Super Bowl, the Broncos used his fourth-round pick to acquire Bouye from Jacksonville.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos' Willis McGahee (23) celebrates his positive yardage against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. The Broncos won 36-14. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

5. Willis McGahee, running back

Elway’s first free agent signing in 2011 was a good one. For two years and $5 million, McGahee rushed for 1,199 yards while making the Pro Bowl in the Tebow season of 2011, and was on his way to a second 1,000-yard season in 2012 when a knee and leg injury stopped him with 731 yards through 10 games.

McGahee held out for more money in the offseason of 2013 but was released after showing up for the mandatory minicamp.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos strong safety T.J. Ward (43) during warm-up before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

6. T.J. Ward, safety

Signed to a four-year, $22.5 million contract, Ward was a dynamic, box safety who in many ways was the personality to that great 2015 Denver defense. A Pro Bowler in his first season with the Broncos in 2014, his body wasn’t big enough to absorb his ferocious style of play. He was cut prior to the 2017 season and the Denver D wasn’t the same without him.

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Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (98), shown in this Fisheye Lens image, stretches prior to an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

7. Terrance Knighton, defensive tackle

Pot Roast! A great value at $4.5 million over two years when he signed in 2013. He was an impact interior defensive lineman in 2013, getting a sack on Brady in the AFC Championship Game that made him a national cult hero who starred in commercials.

His career fizzled from there but he did help the Broncos reach Super Bowl 48.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos guard Louis Vasquez speaks to reporters in Santa Clara, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. The Denver Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

8. Louis Vasquez, right guard

Signed to a four-year, $23.5 million contract prior to 2013, Vasquez was a first-team All Pro in his first season in Denver. He was the best blocker on the highest-scoring offense in NFL history that season.

Vasquez had to play some right tackle the next two years. The combination of a beat-up body and family reasons caused him to surrender the final $5.5 million salary of his contract and retire following the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 season.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos tight end Owen Daniels celebrates after catching a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Peyton Manning during the first half the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

9. Owen Daniels, tight end

After eight seasons with Gary Kubiak in Houston, Daniels followed his coach to Baltimore for a year in 2014 and then to Denver in 2015.That would be the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 season when Daniels had 46 catches plus two memorable touchdown receptions in the AFC Championship Game that gave the Broncos’ 14 of their game-winning 20 points against New England.

Honorable mention: Darian Stewart, safety; Kareem Jackson, safety; Wes Welker, receiver; Brandon Stokley, receiver; Jacob Tamme, tight end; Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, cornerback; Russell Okung, left tackle; Ron Leary, guard; Mike Adams, safety; Ryan Harris, tackle; Sean Phillips, outside linebacker; Evan Mathis, guard; Joel Dreessen, tight end.

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