One of the most exciting parts of the 2021 NFL off-season—free agency—draws nearer and nearer. The Denver Broncos are currently spending most of their time preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft at the end of April. As a result, new general manager George Paton must also devote considerable time to studying the free-agent landscape. Fans can build their excitement by looking into the past while waiting for Paton’s first off-season as GM to get underway. Over the last six decades, the biggest Denver Broncos free agents have helped turn Denver into a football city. Beyond that, they have helped turn the United States into Broncos Country.
Three of the Biggest Denver Broncos Free Agents in History
When examining Denver’s illustrious past in free agency, there is a caveat to keep in mind. This is by no means a complete list of the biggest Denver Broncos free agents in history. The franchise’s history is quite rich in this regard. Rather, it is simply a list of some of the most influential free-agency moves the team has made. In essence, this list serves solely the purpose of fondly recalling some significant free-agency acquisitions the team has made over the years.
On March 1st, 1993, the NFL introduced the modern free agency fans have come to know and love. In the first off-season of this new format, the Denver Broncos poached two of the best offensive linemen on the Minnesota Vikings, perhaps even the best. They traded for left tackle Gary Zimmerman after free-agent experiment Don Maggs suffered an injury in preseason. Zimmerman went on to play 76 of 80 possible games for Denver, earning three Pro Bowl berths and a First-Team All-Pro honor. That said, it was not Zimmerman whom Denver acquired from Minnesota through free agency.
Brian Habib: 1993
Right guard Brian Habib only started 23 games in his four years with Minnesota. When he signed his three-year, $4.2 million deal on March 8th, he began an incredibly effective stint with Denver.
He played 78 of 80 possible games with Denver over the next five years, helping Terrell Davis earn 4,405 of his 7,607 career yards and 35 of his 60 career touchdowns.
Between Habib and Zimmerman, the two former Vikings played 154 of a possible 160 games. Their stability, consistency, and high level of production helped Denver win 55 games (regular and post-season) in five years. Additionally, their play in Super Bowl XXXII helped lead the franchise to their first Lombardi after three previously failed bids.
While Zimmerman admittedly protected Hall of Famer John Elway’s blind side, Habib’s contributions to the team—especially the run game—over half a decade cannot be understated.
Broncos Country has the modern era of free agency to thank for that.
Peyton Manning: 2012
Peyton Manning is possibly the most obvious name on this list. After signing a five-year, $96 million contract, Manning completely changed the Broncos as a franchise. He did so both in terms of their national recognition and making Denver an unmatchable free-agent destination.
The Broncos have always had a winning tradition in Denver. That said, at no point in the franchise’s history was Broncos Country as committed and accustomed to success as they were in the Manning era. This, however, should come as no surprise. After the team won the division in 2011, Manning led Denver to four more consecutive division titles. They also earned two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win with Manning at quarterback.
Just GOAT Things
He started in 57 of 64 possible games over four years with the team. Winning 45 of 57 regular-season starts and five of eight postseason games, Manning established a consistent identity for the team. Excluding the playoffs, he earned 17,112 yards in four years with Denver, averaging 4,278 passing yards per season. He threw 140 scores to only 53 interceptions as well. Compared to his 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning had higher completion percentage and yardage per game figures in Denver. His touchdown and interception percentages were also better than they were in Indianapolis.
Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. In 2013, he led the Broncos to the Super Bowl through the greatest quarterbacking season in NFL history. Individually, he threw for an NFL-record 5,477 passing yards and an NFL-record 55 passing touchdowns. The offense also boasted an NFL-record number of players with double-digit touchdowns and an NFL-record for points scored in a season (606). The team’s aforementioned accomplishments objectively could not have taken place without the Sheriff under center.
Manning’s leadership, example, and mental acuity were also pivotal in the franchise acquiring their third Lombardi Trophy.
DeMarcus Ware: 2014
After a demoralizing pummeling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48, the Broncos decided to load up on defense through free agency and the draft. Coincidentally, one of history’s best pass-rushers found himself on the market. As such, the Broncos signed DeMarcus Ware to a three-year, $30 million contract.
Beyond his palpable positive influence on then-beleaguered pass-rusher Von Miller, Ware’s effect on the team was immense. He also helped bookend the front seven of the single greatest defense in NFL history: the No Fly Zone. When Ware and Miller were at their best together, they indisputably led the best pass rush in the league, maybe even ever.
In three years with Denver, Ware put together some incredible statistics despite never playing a full season with the team. He started 33 of his 48 possible games in his time in orange and blue. He accrued 81 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, two deflections, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 44 quarterback hits, and 21.5 sacks.
Ware’s 11 sacks, forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries in 2015 (regular and post) helped seal multiple games. His production also helped lead the team to a Lombardi Trophy. Without his influence on and off of the field, who knows where the Broncos would be right now. It is reasonable to claim, at the very least, they might not have made it to or won Super Bowl 50 without him.
The Last Word
Without the off-season additions of Brian Habib, Peyton Manning, and DeMarcus Ware, it is uncertain whether or not the Denver Broncos would have even one Lombardi— let alone three. Their influences on the franchise reached far beyond the gridiron, and have helped turn the team into one of history’s most accomplished, respected, and revered.
Today, as the team prepares to try to make similarly influential free-agency moves, Broncos Country must bide their time. By examining the franchise’s rich history in free agency, fans can better understand the magnitude of the opportunity at hand for first-time general manager George Paton. If the Broncos are to become truly competitive once again, Paton will need to get a head start on supplying the team with the next biggest Denver Broncos free agents.
It is highly unlikely anyone available in the 2021 off-season can have as significant an effect on the franchise as the aforementioned three men. Nonetheless, George Paton must try to overcome this unlikelihood if he intends to manage the team for years to come.
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