The Denver Broncos have a rich history of signing great players in free agency. Here are their top 15 pickups of all-time.
The Denver Broncos have a rich history of picking up top-tier free agents, perhaps one of the most impressive all-time lists in all of professional sports.
We all know how this all-time list of the top free agent signings in team history ends, but what other free agents have come to Denver to make an impact?
If you're a relatively young Broncos fan, like me, you've been spoiled year after year with one great free agency pickup after another.
This list is so good, players like "Weapon X" himself (Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins) didn't make the final cut.
Players like Wes Welker, the best slot receiver arguably ever, who caught 10 touchdown passes on the Broncos' record-setting 2013 offense didn't make the cut. Neither did one of the team's most underrated free agent pickups in the last couple of decades in Brandon Lloyd.
Lloyd doesn't get talked about much as a great free agent pickup because he played on one of the worst Broncos teams ever, but his highlight reel from the 2010 season is one for the ages.
With so many impactful former free agent acquisitions to choose from, it was tough to find a place to even start this list. These rankings will certainly be debated, as every one of these players has a case to be ranked even higher (or lower), but this list is about honoring some great players in Broncos history.
During the crazy 2011 offseason, the NFL went through a lockout and a really weird chain of events that put everything backwards.
The NFL Draft happened before free agency. The Broncos were under new management, as owner Pat Bowlen decided to fire head coach Josh McDaniels and hire legendary quarterback John Elway to run the team.
Elway hired John Fox to right the ship, and used his first-ever draft pick on franchise cornerstone in pass rusher Von Miller.
It wasn't until July 29, 2011 that the Broncos reached a three-year agreement with running back Willis McGahee, who was entering his age-30 season after a decent amount of success with the Baltimore Ravens.
McGahee had a connection on the coaching staff with 2010 interim head coach Eric Studesville, who had coached him to two 1,000-yard seasons when McGahee was with the Buffalo Bills.
McGahee experienced a career revival in Denver. He helped lead the Broncos in rushing the year they led the entire NFL in that category. That just so happened to be the magical Tim Tebow year, but people forget just how good the former Miami Hurricanes star was for Denver.
In 25 games for the Broncos, he rushed for 1,930 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and had over 2,200 yards from scrimmage along with nine touchdowns.
McGahee earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2011 and was with the Broncos during their stellar 2012 season when they won 11-straight games heading into the AFC playoffs.
Back when fullbacks were still en vogue, Howard Griffith was one of the best in the NFL.
The former ninth-round pick in the 1991 NFL Draft of the Indianapolis Colts, Griffith spent two seasons with them before making his NFL debut with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993.
After two seasons with the Rams, Griffith was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 1995 Expansion Draft.
In 1997, he signed with the Broncos as a free agent and gave the Broncos their most legendary backfield of all-time.
Every Broncos fan knows about John Elway and Terrell Davis. But did you know that it was Griffith who scored two touchdowns for Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII and made a clutch reception to set up a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXII?
Though Griffith wasn't Mike Alstott as far as running fullbacks are concerned, he was a key piece of the Broncos' first two Super Bowl titles. He deserves a spot on this list as Terrell Davis' lead blocker and a clutch performer in the postseason for Denver.
Bill Romanowski is likely a reason many people absolutely hated the Broncos in the 1990s.
As a matter of fact, he is probably one of the most hated athletes in the history of sports.
One of the true bad boys of football, Romanowski signed with the Broncos after stints with the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles. The year before he got to Denver, he was ejected from a game for kicking a player in the head.
In six seasons with the Broncos, however, Romanowski's antics didn't cost him any games. He started every game for six years in Denver, helping the team win their first two Super Bowl titles in franchise history, earning two Pro Bowl nods along the way.
In 16 NFL seasons, Romanowski won four championships.
Dirty or not, the guy was productive, and he helped his teams win a lot of games.
After some great years in the glory days of Peyton Manning's career with the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos took a free agent flier on Brandon Stokley in 2007 -- Jay Cutler's first full year as a starter with the team -- after he was limited to just four games the year prior due to injury.
At the age of 31, Stokley certainly had a great reputation for what he'd done in the past, but injuries had done enough that it seemed his best days were in the past.
As it turned out, Stokley's first stint with the Broncos jump started something in him and he proved he had a lot of great football left in him.
Catching passes from Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton throughout his first stint in Denver, Stokley proved he was a master of the slot. He caught 108 passes for 1,490 yards and 12 touchdowns in those three seasons.
Over the next two seasons, Stokley played for the Seattle Seahawks and the New York Giants. It appeared his career was once again at an end.
Again, not so fast.
Stokley was a major factor in the Broncos' signing of Manning. When he signed, Manning convinced Stokley to sign along with him. The two picked up right where they had left off with the Colts. Stokley caught 45 passes for 544 yards and five touchdowns for the Broncos at the age of 36.
He has made some of the greatest plays in Broncos history and was part of one of the best Denver teams to never win a Super Bowl in 2012.
The Broncos were beaten, bloodied, and battered in Super Bowl XLVIII against a much tougher Seattle Seahawks team.
John Elway had put together a legendary offense led by quarterback Peyton Manning, but the defense was atrocious.
So in the 2014 offseason, he set out to add some toughness. The first move he made was signing veteran safety T.J. Ward, a hard-hitting Pro Bowler from the Cleveland Browns.
Ward was one of the top safeties and top defensive players on the market, in general that year. The Broncos snatched him up to be an enforcer on the back end of their defense.
That is exactly what he provided.
In 41 games for the Broncos, Ward racked up 224 tackles, five sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions.
He also made a couple of absolutely huge plays in Super Bowl 50 for the Broncos and was part of arguably the best defense in league history that season.
Ward wasn't in Denver very long, but he played such a major role for the No Fly Zone that it was impossible to keep him off this list.
Alfred "Big Al" Williams is known these days for his work in the radio business in the Mile High City, but he was once a dominant defensive lineman.
"Big Al" played his college football in Boulder at the University of Colorado, and has been a local favorite for a long time.
He was a first-round pick in the 1991 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals after he helped the Buffaloes win a National Championship in 1990.
Williams came to the Broncos in 1996. He made an immediate impact, earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors after he racked up 13 sacks in that first season with his new team.
He went on to play a key role in the Broncos' first two Super Bowl titles in team history, retiring after the 1999 season. In his four seasons with the Broncos, Williams racked up 28.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and 131 total tackles.
Before his dynamic dual-threat of a son Christian McCaffrey hit the field for the Carolina Panthers, his father Ed McCaffrey was a heck of a football player in the NFL.
Drafted in the third round of the 1991 NFL Draft (that draft was apparently pretty kind to the Broncos) by the New York Giants, the Stanford product took a couple of years to get things going as a pro.
After an underwhelming three years with the Giants, McCaffrey went to the San Francisco 49ers for a year and won a Super Bowl, the first of three in his career.
He signed with the Broncos in 1995 and became a full-time starter by 1996. He was a prominent player for the Broncos during their glory years and wound up playing nine of his 13 NFL seasons in the Mile High City.
Among those nine seasons, McCaffrey had three 1,000-yard seasons from 1998 to 2000, where he really established himself as an iconic player in Broncos football history.
He's become synonymous among Broncos fans with the No. 87. McCaffrey has since done great things in Colorado with radio, high school football and youth football camps.
John Elway isn't the only "John" in Broncos history to play college ball at Stanford with a background in baseball.
John Lynch threw the first pitch in the history of the Florida Marlins organization, and that ball is in the baseball Hall of Fame.
I bet you didn't know that, did you?
Lynch put together a Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and came to Denver at the age of 33.
Lynch brought his hard-hitting mentality to Denver, where he earned four trips to the Pro Bowl. He helped re-establish a defensive identity in Denver along with cornerback Champ Bailey and a number of others. The Broncos had their best defense of the 2000s during Lynch's time with the team.
He finished his four seasons in Denver with 267 tackles in 60 games, and added nine forced fumbles, three interceptions and seven sacks.
Lynch was a rare breed at the safety position and a tone-setter even into his late 30s.
Jake "The Snake" Plummer was a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals where he played the first six years of his NFL career.
He became a free agent at the age of 29 and signed with the Broncos to replace Brian Griese, who was supposed to be the heir apparent to John Elway.
Plummer stepped into some big shoes at a really tender time in Broncos football history. He quickly established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the team.
In Mike Shanahan's offense, Plummer played the best football of his professional career, winning 39 of his 54 starts with the team and throwing 71 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.
Plummer and the Broncos reached the AFC Championship in the 2005 season, where they were drubbed at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers. This loss set in motion a bizarre chain of events at the quarterback position in Denver.
Plummer was the quarterback of the Broncos through my high school years, and I absolutely loved watching him play. I think he doesn't get the credit he deserves as one of the more underrated quarterbacks to play the game.
He may not have been an elite gunslinger, but Plummer was one of the best quarterbacks to play in the Shanahan offense. One bad game in 2005 erased what should have been a title year for Denver.
Most people know Mark Schlereth now as the guy who used to be on ESPN or the guy who calls games for FOX, but he was once one of the best offensive linemen in all of football.
Schlereth was a 10th-round pick (263rd overall) of the Washington Redskins in 1989. He actually won a Super Bowl and earned a Pro Bowl nod in his time with the Hogs.
He signed with the Broncos in the 1995 season and was part of the best teams in franchise history led by quarterback John Elway and running back Terrell Davis.
Schlereth was one of the meanest, nastiest players in the league at the time. He earned that reputation with his physical style of play.
The man known as "Stink" had his career cut short by injuries. He was set to sign a six-year contract extension with the Broncos before it became clear he wasn't physically capable of continuing on.
I'd say Schlereth has done quite well for himself in his years after football, as he's an outstanding television personality and in-game analyst.
The 2014 offseason John Elway and the Broncos put together should go down in NFL history as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- of all-time.
Elway had seemingly exhausted all of his available salary cap space until out of the blue, the Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders to a three-year contract worth $12 million.
It's unfathomable in hindsight that the Broncos were ever able to get him at that price, but they did.
Sanders came aboard the Broncos' roster at a time when they had just lost Eric Decker, who had become a fan favorite, and he really brought a new element to the Denver offense.
Sanders has speed unlike anything the Broncos have really had in recent memory at the receiver position. He has been so productive since 2014, he's closing in on some all-time lists and records for Broncos wide receivers.
Though he's struggling with injuries over the past couple of seasons, Sanders has developed into an elite playmaker at wide receiver since joining the Broncos.
In five seasons with the Broncos, Sanders has 4,994 receiving yards, 26 touchdown catches, two Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win.
Neil Smith was the second overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft out of Nebraska by the Kansas City Chiefs.
That is perhaps the most satisfying thing about his standing on this list.
Smith was a lifelong Chief before coming to the Broncos and bringing home the hardware. If you're a Chiefs fan reading this, how about that?
Smith had made five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs. But when he hit free agency at the age of 31, he went title chasing. After a legendary career with the Chiefs, Smith brought his signature style of play to Denver, where he made the Pro Bowl in 1997 and helped the team win their first championship in franchise history.
Though Smith was the NFL's sack leader in his days with the Chiefs and wasn't quite that dominant in Denver, he was one of the pieces clearly missing from Denver's teams in the 1990s that they needed to push them over the top.
Smith was a modern-era athlete playing in an era of football that literally had to create rules for the way he played.
At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Smith ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash and had a wingspan bigger than 7-foot-1.
This guy was freakish.
He put together three very strong seasons for the Broncos with 19 sacks in 43 games.
The Broncos were fresh off another embarrassing Super Bowl loss, and this franchise knows plenty of those experiences.
Nobody knows what it's like to lose the Super Bowl in an embarrassing fashion more than John Elway, who lost some really tough games against all-time great teams throughout the early part of his NFL career.
After the Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks and their dominating secondary, Elway tried to build one of his own.
He knew he would have Chris Harris Jr. coming back from an ACL injury, but the Broncos needed another big-time cornerback. Most people felt he would find a way to re-sign breakthrough free agent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Broncos and "DRC" could not agree on a new deal for the cornerback to stay in The Mile High City. Instead, Denver signed Aqib Talib to a six-year contract.
Talib was considered a high-risk player, but that high risk paid off in a huge way for the Broncos, as Talib was an elite cornerback during his four years with the Broncos.
In 58 games, Talib picked off 11 passes and scored six touchdowns off those interceptions. Had he not scored some of those touchdowns, I don't know what would have happened to the Broncos in the 2015 season. They needed every single point to win a lot of really close games, ultimately culminating in a No. 1 seed in the AFC West.
Talib has the type of attitude you love if he's on your team, but hate to play against. He was an incredible Bronco. Despite only being in town for four years, he might go into the Broncos Ring of Fame someday.
It's difficult to decide which signing between DeMarcus Ware or Aqib Talib was more impactful.
Again, if this hasn't hit home enough, feast your eyes on the Broncos' free-agent class of 2014:
- DeMarcus Ware
- Aqib Talib
- Emmanuel Sanders
- T.J. Ward
That is an all-time great list, and it happened in one offseason.
The Broncos' biggest free agent fish at the time was Ware, who was surprisingly released by the Dallas Cowboys.
Denver had their sights set on Minnesota Vikings defensive ends Jared Allen and Everson Griffen, but quickly fixated on Ware, who ended up taking the same plane to Denver as Aqib Talib.
The Broncos were in a title window, and Ware was chasing a title. Similar to Neil Smith's situation nearly two decades prior, the Broncos brought in an all-time great pass rusher slightly beyond the prime years of his career. However, Ware had some great football left for the Broncos.
The combination of Ware and Von Miller playing at full strength was a sight to behold.
Though Ware struggled with some injuries in his time with the Broncos, he put together one of the most impressive postseason runs I have ever seen. His performance in the 2015 AFC Championship game was absolutely legendary.
Ware is certainly one of the best free agent signings in the history of the Broncos.
Five neck procedures and an early entry into the 2012 NFL Draft by Andrew Luck sent Peyton Manning from the Indianapolis Colts to the NFL transaction wire as a cap casualty after a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
If Manning had retired after 2011, he would already be in Canton with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He would be wearing gold jackets at every significant appearance.
Instead, Manning decided to make a comeback to football after his significant neck procedures, and took a free agent tour across the country to find his new team after leaving Indianapolis.
Manning's free agency courting period was one of the most intense in NFL history. It's not often a four-time NFL MVP hits the open market.
The Broncos won the sweepstakes just months after Tebowmania ended. Instantly, the team became Super Bowl contenders.
The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal. After a 1-2 start in Manning's first season with the team, he and the Broncos turned it on. They ripped off 11-straight wins to finish out the 2012 season, where Manning completed the highest percentage of passes he had in his entire career (68.6).
In 2013, Manning won the NFL MVP award (his fifth) when he threw for 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, as the Broncos set an NFL record for most points scored in a single season.
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In 2014, Manning was again an NFL MVP candidate, but the Broncos fell short of their goal in all of those first three seasons.
In 2015, Manning had physically declined to the point that he was almost a liability. He spent a few games recovering from an injury and was replaced by his backup Brock Osweiler, who held the fort down in his place.
With the top seed in the AFC on the line in the 2015 season, the Broncos pulled Osweiler at halftime of the last regular season game of the year in favor of Manning. The all-time great's presence galvanized the team.
Denver didn't lose a game after Dec. 20, 2015, ripping off five straight -- including three in the playoffs -- to win Super Bowl 50 over the Carolina Panthers.
Manning should go down as not only the greatest free agent signing in Broncos history, but arguably the greatest free agent signing in the history of professional sports.