John Elway and his lasting impact on the Denver Broncos

May 13, 2022; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Bronco President of Football Operations John Elway (left) and head coach Nathaniel Hackett (right) during rookie mini camp drills at UCHealth Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
May 13, 2022; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Bronco President of Football Operations John Elway (left) and head coach Nathaniel Hackett (right) during rookie mini camp drills at UCHealth Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Denver Broncos transition from the Elway/Bowlen era when the team gets sold this year, let’s take a look back at the impact John Elway made.

The Denver Broncos will soon no longer be owned by the Bowlen family.  After nearly 40 years of consistent involvement between Elway and the Bowlen family, the team is set to turn over a new leaf.

The new era began after the 2020 season, when the Denver Broncos announced that John Elway would no longer serve as General Manager, essentially stepping upwards into a more administrative role.

For 10 years, Elway held down the title of GM.  Many criticized his time in this role.  They would often cite his poor decisions in the draft, especially pertaining to the quarterback position, which he also tried to solve in free agency.

Broncos were able to go to two Super Bowls, winning one during his tenure, as he was able to lure Peyton Manning to the Mile High City just a couple of short years after taking over as the GM.

After Manning retired, the team fell into mediocrity.  Elway’s multiple failed experiments at the quarterback position turned many Broncos fans away from his tenure as GM.

They thought that he wasn’t really fit to run the team anymore.  I think the 2016-2020 seasons were definitely a strong case that John Elway shouldn’t have served as the GM any longer.

However, while his time as GM ended rather disappointingly, his impact as GM cannot be overstated.

In fact, without some of the moves he did make as GM, George Paton surely never takes the job, and Russell Wilson never gets traded to Denver.

Here’s why.

Part of the reason why George Paton took this job was that he viewed the team as a “sleeping giant.”  Those were his words.  Paton saw something in this roster that needed awakening.

Paton wasn’t just a random person who interviewed for this job.  He interviewed with over 10 teams over the years before landing on the Denver Broncos.

He was a popular figure in the GM-search cycles for years.

What exactly did George Paton mean when he called the team a “sleeping giant” after the 2020 season ended.

Well, the obvious answer is the strength of the roster.  Denver has usually always had strong rosters in the post-Manning era, but with poor quarterback play.

Starting from the 2016 NFL Draft, John Elway and his scouting staff managed to find a gem in Justin Simmons.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, they managed to find a late-blooming, but franchise left tackle in Garett Bolles.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, John Elway and Co. managed to find three quality, Pro Bowl-caliber starters in Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, and Josey Jewell, three players who could all have a long-term future with the team.

In 2019, Elway and Co. managed to find more quality starters in Dalton Risner, who is competing for a starting spot, Noah Fant, who was packaged in the Wilson trade, and Dre’Mont Jones, and stud defensive end who is in line for an extension with Denver.

And in the 2020 NFL Draft, John Elway and his gang managed to find players who have all contributed to some degree in their two years and could contribute even more down the road, including Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Michael Ojemudia, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Albert Okwuegbunam.

I count 13 different players that are/will/be quality starters/Pro Bowl-caliber players for the Denver Broncos.

That isn’t all, though.  In the Elway era, they also managed to find two diamonds in the rough in Shelby Harris and Alexander Johnson, who contributed to a nasty Denver defense.

Elway also made some decent free agent signings in Kareem Jackson, and Bryce Callahan, when he was able to stay on the field.

More players featured on the 2020-2021 clubs that surely swayed George Paton into taking the GM job here include free agent signings Melvin Gordon and Graham Glashow, and underrated receiver Tim Patrick.

My point here is that the John Elway era was able to leave the Denver Broncos in a very good spot roster-wise.

There was and still is a very solid core of players assembled that the John Elway era had a hand in bringing in.  Between some of his drafts which look to be very solid, and a few decent free agent signings, the Elway era was able to leave the team with an above-average roster missing just a few pieces.

So, when George Paton came in, he knew what he had to do.

The quarterback was the biggest issue, but he also addressed other small holes on the roster.

His 2021 draft included stud cornerback Patrick Surtain II, Javonte Williams, who is set to break out, Quinn Meinerz, who looks like a solid bet at right guard, and other contributors who look to have a promising future in Baron Browning and Caden Sterns.

George Paton knew this roster did not need a complete overhaul.  He knew that if he could get the quarterback situation fixed, all would be well, for the most part.

It’s clear that Paton had a plan in place to put the finishing touches on the roster.  His 2021 draft, which nearly did just that, is looking like a grand slam.

Adding Russell Wilson in free agency via trade essentially puts a giant red bow on the Denver Broncos.

However, while George Paton deserves a TON of credit, he does not deserve all of it.

Some of the veteran contributors on the Broncos were drafted, signed, and traded for during the John Elway era.

While Elway was perhaps fairly criticized for his handling of the quarterback position, his other moves, especially in the last few years of his tenure, set the Denver Broncos up wonderfully for George Paton, who put the last finishing touches on.