For many fans, the free agency period is the most exciting part of the year. Free agent signings bring hope. The new is always better than the old.
Just days into the 2014 free agency period, Denver Broncos fans now find three shiny new toys to play with. Perhaps three of the shiniest. By all accounts the Broncos are one of the early winners of free agency. But how much have they actually improved?
It’s easy to see the additions of T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, and Demarcus Ware as a home run. They are all seen as upper tier players at their respective positions. The Broncos must be better with them than without them right?
But what isn’t as easy to see is how much of an improvement the defensive trio will be over the players they are replacing. It’s easy to get caught up in the names. In a vacuum, the addition of Ward, Talib and Ware to a team that just went to the Super Bowl is almost unfair to the rest of the league. But these additions also came with subtractions.
So how much of an upgrade have the Broncos made? Let’s look at each individually in order of guaranteed money commitment.
Aqib Talib – 2013 Bronco he is replacing: Dominique Rogers-Cromartie
The two players are nearly a wash regarding age as Talib is less than two months older than DRC. Most performance metrics grade DRC as having an elite season in 2013, while Talib’s 2013 performance is often found in the lower third. But free agency is (or should be) about the future. Even if you assume (as the Broncos must be) that Talib will out perform DRC over the next few years, it’s hard to argue that he will consistently out perform DRC’s top tier 2013 season. So while Talib might be the better player with the better skill set, he’s replacing a guy who had a great season and was one of the few stars on the defensive side of the ball. Grade: Slight Upgrade
Demarcus Ware – 2013 Bronco he is replacing: Shaun Phillips
Ware is the younger player by 14 months, a plus in Ware’s favor even if only a minor one. Ware however comes with the pedigree of an elite defensive force. His resume is hard to top; 7x Pro Bowl appearances, 7x All-Pro (4x 1st Team), 2x NFL sack leader, 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, 7 straight years with 10+ sacks (2006 – 2013). Only Reggie White reached 100 career sacks more quickly. Phillips (1x Pro Bowler) has been a solid and steady performer throughout his career but has never been considered to be in Ware’s league. Phillips had a strong 2013 with 10 sacks, while Ware struggled with injuries and had a career low of 6. From 2006 through 2013 though, Ware averaged 14.7 sacks per season and never had less than 11. Both Phillips and Ware are considered high quality character guys, though Ware has made his presence felt since signing and already projects as the Broncos defensive team leader. This one was tougher to call than expected as Ware will have to measure up to the 2013 Shaun Phillips that led Denver in sacks, but in the end Ware projects to top that 2013 season in more ways than one. Grade: Game Changer
T.J Ward – 2013 Bronco he is replacing: Duke Ihenacho
Ward comes in to town 2.5 years older than Ihenacho, though at only 27 he is on the younger side for a free agent and still in his prime. Ihenacho was one of the great stories of 2013, rising from undrafted free agent in 2013 to starter on a Super Bowl team. From the OTAs through the preseason he gained a reputation as a hard hitter and playmaker. His 2013 performance was solid at times, and lacking at others. The hard hits came, but so did the plays where he was out of position or taking bad angles. Though he wasn’t a liability, he wasn’t a difference maker either. Ward graded out as an elite strong safety in 2013, and was top 3 in most free agent rankings at the safety position. He excels close to the line of scrimmage and is renown for making quick reads and taking good lines to make plays. He is a reputed hitter who brings a little of the “nasty” that the team has been looking for this offseason. Grade: Game Changer
The Broncos have been the talk of free agency so far, hardly unexpected considering the names they’ve added to the roster and the guaranteed dollars they’ve committed. Demarcus Ware and Aqib Talib come in replacing two of the best 2013 Broncos defensive performers, turning strengths into even greater strengths. But T.J. Ward projects to create the greatest positional improvement of the Broncos three free agent signings, turning the strong safety position from a potential weakness into a bonafide strength.
Combining the recent signings with the healthy returns of Von Miller, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson, and Derek Wolfe, the Broncos should see a marked improvement on “that other side” of the ball in 2014.