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Darian Stewart on release from Broncos: 'I gotta lot of love for Denver, but it's time for a change'

In a phone call from Hong Kong with 9News, Stewart said he'll "bet on myself" in a crowded free-agent safety market.

KUSA – Before he left for the other side of the world, Darian Stewart zeroed in on the between-the-lines comments of what John Elway said at the NFL Combine last week.

Stewart was aware his four-year hold on a Broncos starting safety position was in peril of slipping away.

"You all put it in the atmosphere since the season," Stewart said from Hong Kong in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon with 9News. "When the combine came, and I’d seen options getting picked up, I needed some clarity."

Elway, the Broncos’ general manager, said during his NFL Combine press conference last Wednesday that he was picking up the $1.5 million option on receiver Emmanuel Sanders and $1 million option on defensive end Derek Wolfe.

Stewart didn’t have an option on his scheduled $4.97 million payout for 2019, but 9News asked Elway asked about the status of his veteran safety.  

"Darian’s been tremendous" Elway said. "We still have to look at that and continue to create our plan on which direction we want to go. But a great deal of respect for Darian and we’ll have to make that decision as we get closer."

Stewart had been around long enough to want his decision made sooner rather than later. He asked his agent, Jason Chayet, to reach out to Elway regarding his status. Elway wanted to speak to Stewart directly and a phone call was arranged at roughly 4 a.m. Thursday, March 7 Hong Kong time – 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 6 Denver time.

Stewart was in Hong Kong as part of a 5-year anniversary trip he was taking through Asia with his wife Whitley and 3-year-old daughter, Hayden.

Elway delivered it straight to Stewart: He was going to be released. Stewart promptly announced his departure on his Instagram account.

"Me and Elway just had a talk on the phone," Stewart said. "I heard it straight from his mouth that I was going to be released. All I wanted was clarity going into free agency. I had heard speculation here and there about me being out of there and I needed to know something before April 1 (the day players are to report for offseason conditioning) because that’s the worst time to be cut. I didn’t want what happened to C.J. (Anderson) last year."

Anderson, who had been the Broncos’ starting running back coming off a 1,000-yard season, was released on the first day the players were to report for offseason conditioning on April 16 – a full month after free agency opened. He wound up scrapping to get a one-year, $1.6 million deal with Carolina.

Given Stewart turns 31 in August and his near $5 million payout, his release was expected. Still, it’s another melancholy step away from the vaunted No Fly Zone secondary that helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 just three years ago.

T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and now Stewart are gone. Only Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby remain from that standout secondary and Roby may well leave next week as he joins Stewart in free agency.

"There’ll never be another group like that," Stewart said. "(Super Bowl 50) was definitely the highlight. Can’t beat that. But the past three years there’s been nothing but struggles. I mean for the team. It was time for a change."

Stewart had been an oft-injured journeyman who had played with the St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens before signing a modest two-year, $4.25 million deal with the Broncos in 2015.

He became one of Elway’s most underrated free-agent signs. After helping the Broncos win their third-ever Super Bowl in his first year with the team, Stewart was playing good ball again in 2016 when a spectacular three turnover performance against New Orleans – two interceptions on two consecutive defensive plays off Drew Brees and a 28-yard recovery return off a Michael Thomas fumble – earned him a four-year, $28 million contract extension.

He collected $17.5 million from his new contract.

"I got some money in my pocket, I’m thankful for everything Denver gave me and my family," Stewart said. "My daughter was born in Denver, so I have so much love for Denver. Super Bowl ring, my first born child, there’s a lotta love for Denver. But it’s time for a change. I’m in a good place."

With Stewart gone, the Broncos could turn to backups Will Parks, Dymonte Thomas or Jamal Carter as partner to returning starter Justin Simmons. Or the Broncos could dip into the free agent market that features the likes of safeties Earl Thomas, Adrian Amos, Landon Collins, Eric Weddle, Ha Clinton-Nix, Lamarcus Joyner, Jimmie Ward and Kenny Vaccaro.

From Hong Kong, the Stewarts are heading Friday to Thailand before returning to his Charlotte, N.C. home on Tuesday – the day before free agency officially opens.

"I’ve got a lot of ball left in me," Stewart said. "It’s a crowded safety market but I bet on myself every time. They can say I’ve lost a step, but we’ll see real soon."

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