The Denver Broncos put the finishing touches on a Championship season Sunday evening with a dominating performance in Super Bowl 50. Cam Newton was harassed the entire game by a Denver defensive unit that, thanks to this and similar performances in the playoffs, now finds itself being compared to great defenses of the past like the ’85 Bears and ’00 Ravens. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Denver was able to claim Super Bowl 50 not only without a superstar Quarterback but with one that more closely resembled Ryan Leaf than vintage Peyton Manning.
So how was Denver able to build a defense so dominant that it emerged victorious while having to carry a brutal offense for most of the season? The answer is a combination of luck, skill and prudent decisions that all came together perfectly.
Draft and Develop
Many people cite the Packers and Steelers when considering the teams that build primarily from the draft and do so in complementary terms. John Elway and his staff have expertly managed the draft in the last five seasons to come away with All-Pro Von Miller, freshly extended Derek Wolfe and starters Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Of these players, only Miller was selected in the top 10. Because of the Broncos’ ability to identify starting quality talent in the draft they were afforded the ability to top off this defense with Free Agent studs.
Free Agent Additions
After getting throttled in Super Bowl 48 by the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos became much more active in Free Agency, most likely a process begun out of the realization that Peyton Manning was closing in on the end of his career.
Bringing in Aqib Talib, poached from the Patriots, and T.J. Ward from the Browns went a long way to securing the back end of this defense and Darian Stewart is getting a lot of credit for limiting Greg Olsen’s effectiveness in Super Bowl 50. However, it was the addition of DeMarcus Ware that completes the scheme.
In 2013 it looked like the Broncos defense would feature a pass rush bookended by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil but when Dumervil’s agent waited too long to fax paperwork pertaining to a restructured contract, the Broncos decided to cut Dumervil who ultimately signed with the Baltimore Ravens. After shuffling various players through the spot vacated by Dumervil during the 2013 season, the perfect replacement fell into their lap when the Cowboys cut DeMarcus Ware in March of 2014 due to salary cap restrictions. These additions are reflected in the Football Outsiders DVOA ranking of the Broncos defense: 15th in 2013, 4th in 2014 and 1st in 2015.
Diamonds in the Rough
Even with the successes of their last five drafts, the Broncos biggest coup is most likely Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who has been selected to the last two Pro-Bowls despite going undrafted in 2011. In response to his stellar play, the Broncos extended Harris’ contract before the 2015 season.
Brandon Marshall is yet another player that the Broncos were able to identify and bring in. Marshall was signed to the Broncos practice squad in 2013 after being discarded by the Jaguars and was named as a Pro-Bowl alternate following the 2015 season.
The 2015 Broncos fielded a defense littered with future Hall-of-Famers, draft steals, free agent gold and a cast-away Pro-Bowler. It may not be the conventional way to build a champion in today’s NFL but John Elway did a masterful job putting together a team that defied the odds to win the Lombardi trophy.