Since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver four years ago, the Broncos have consistently been a Super Bowl contender, including a trip to the big game two years in Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks. But unlike that Super Bowl run, which was mainly orchestrated by Manning and a juggernaut offense, the Broncos are the 2015 AFC champions largely due to a suffocating defense and roster built with balance.
The Broncos have been very active in free agency, filling out the roster with cornerstone players like defensive end Demarcus Ware, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and cornerback Aqib Talib. But the NFL Draft has been a critical step to the construction of the AFC champs with 22 players on the roster that Denver drafted (two more than the Panthers), including five first-round picks. Team-building is a delicate balance between free agents and draft picks and executive vice president/general manager and Broncos legend John Elway has walked the fine line well.
Another key difference in this year's Broncos team is the coaching staff as Denver and former head coach John Fox mutually agreed to part ways after last season. To create better cohesion between the coaching staff and front office, Elway hired Gary Kubiak as head coach, another familiar face as he previously served as backup quarterback (1983-91) and offensive coordinator (1995-2005) in Denver.
MEN AT THE TOP
Following the disastrous Josh McDaniels era, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen added Elway to the front office in 2011. The move was met with skepticism as some saw the hire as a public relations move for the fans. However, it became clear very quickly that Elway was more than just a spokesman or token figure head, the Broncos were going to be built with a blueprint designed by the quarterback who won the franchise its only two Super Bowls.
Once Elway took over the day-to-day, he didn't insist on a complete overhaul of the player personnel department. Instead, he kept most of the football operations staff intact, adding several experienced decision-makers from the outside, including Tom Heckert, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
FIVE MOVES THAT GOT THEM HERE
Two years ago, the Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl with a record-breaking offense led by Manning, but it was no match for the Seahawks No. 1-ranked defense as Seattle dominated Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8. Having a future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm was obviously important, but, as the old adage says, defense wins championships. A few weeks after that loss, Elway committed over $100 million in free agency to Talib, Ware and T.J. Ward and continued to focus on defensive prospects in the draft.
Yes, Elway is a former quarterback and offensive thinker by trade, but since he was hired as a member of the Broncos' front office in 2011, Denver has drafted a defensive player with their first pick in the draft each of the last five years and eight defensive players on the roster are former top-40 draft picks. Elway and his staff have also found several late round or undrafted gems, including cornerback Chris Harris, who has made the Pro Bowl the last two years.
And the final piece to the puzzle was Wade Phillips, who was hired as defensive coordinator prior to the 2015 season. The year the Broncos lost to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the Denver defense finished 19th in the NFL. But that ranking improved to third in 2014 and No. 1 in 2015 under Phillips, leading the league in total yards allowed (283.1), sacks (52), forced fumbles (25) and defensive scores (four).
The core of the Broncos roster is a balance of home-grown draft picks, wise free agent signings and a few undrafted discoveries.
Manning, Ware and Talib were all signed to lucrative free agent deals on Elway's watch, along with several other important yet under-the-radar additions like linebacker Brandon Marshall and guard Louis Vasquez (both chosen as Pro Bowl alternates in 2015). Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and offensive tackle Ryan Clady are the two core players who were on the roster prior to Elway, although Clady missed all of the 2015 seasons due to a torn ACL.
Through the draft, the Broncos have used high draft picks to find core players, including Miller (No. 2 overall, 2011), Derek Wolfe (No. 36 overall, 2012) and Sylvester Williams (No. 28, 2013) in the defensive front-seven. And the franchise has hit on several late round or undrafted players in the bargain bin like Harris (undrafted), Malik Jackson (No. 137 overall, 2012) and Danny Trevathan (No. 188 overall, 2012).
A player who may or may not be the future of the franchise at quarterback, Brock Osweiler proved to be a valuable member of the Broncos this season, recording a 5-2 record as a starter while Manning was out with injuries. Osweiler was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft and will be a free agent after the Super Bowl.
Denver ranked middle of the pack in rushing this season, but are getting bang for their buck with undrafted running back C.J. Anderson (2013), who has rushed for 1,500-plus yards combined the last two seasons. Although neither Anderson nor Ronnie Hillman (No. 67 overall, 2012) are core players, they create a tandem backfield that gets the job done more times than not.
Several other members of the Broncos' roster aren't household names, but have been contributors on the path to the Super Bowl. Players like pass rusher Shaquil Barrett (undrafted), cornerback Kayvon Webster (No. 90 overall, 2013) and safety David Bruton (No. 114 overall, 2009) and free agent finds like defensive tackle Vance Walker.
GRADING THE DRAFT
While free agent additions might be the backbone to the Broncos' roster, the team's success on draft weekend has been equally as important to Denver playing in Super Bowl 50.
Dating back to 2010, the Broncos have drafted very well with their first pick in the draft: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (2010), linebacker Von Miller (2011), defensive tackle Derek Wolfe (2012), defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (2013), cornerback Bradley Roby (2014) and defensive end Shane Ray (2015).
With the exception of Ray, who was a nickel rusher as a rookie in 2015, the Broncos' first pick in the draft since 2010 have each been key starters on the current squad. Roby technically started only four games this past season, but his playing time is near equal to a starter due to the amount of nickel packages.
The Broncos have been far from perfect on draft weekend. They swung and missed on running back Montee Ball (No. 58 overall, 2013) and wide receiver Cody Latimer (No. 56, 2014) has taken longer than expected to develop. But Elway and his staff deserve credit for their work through the draft, especially considering they haven't drafted in the top-20 picks since 2011.
FRONT OFFICE VIEW
Elway was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the field and he might be a Super Bowl-winning executive off the field if the Broncos can pull the upset over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. And if that happens, his accomplishments as a general manager will have been earned through hard work, preparation and talent -- just like his accomplishments as a quarterback.
"Really, what I was drawing off and have been drawing off, is my experience in my career," Elway said. "When we won those two Super Bowls, what was the formula? The formula was to play good defense, and offensively, it was about running the ball."
Some will say that it doesn't take talent to open a checkbook and write down numbers and that would be correct. However, Elway has been more than an ATM or figure head -- he has had a plan since the day he took office. And while it hasn't always been pretty, that plan has the Broncos planning for the ultimate prize on Super Bowl Sunday.
--Dane Brugler is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed in partnership with The Sports Xchange and CBSSports.com.