Broncos have 'bounced off the bottom,' must use resources wisely

John Elway and the Broncos project to have 12 draft picks and between $63 million and $66 million in salary cap space before any cuts. RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The 2020 season will be the 10th since then-owner Pat Bowlen looked across a table at John Elway and asked the Hall of Fame quarterback to come back and save the Denver Broncos.

In the nine seasons since Elway took over as the Broncos' chief of football choices, there have been some good decisions, some really good and some, well, not so much.

Elway took eight-time Pro Bowl selection Von Miller with his first draft selection and wooed quarterback Peyton Manning in free agency post-neck surgery, leading to one of the best runs in franchise history and culminating with a win at Super Bowl 50.

But a pair of failed drafts in 2016 and 2017 led to four consecutive playoff misses, three losing seasons, seven starting quarterbacks and a growing number of empty seats at home games.

All of which makes the weeks and months ahead the most important of Elway's tenure.

The Broncos have had a pile of draft picks before and they've had some significant salary-cap room before, but this offseason they have both. They project to have 12 draft picks and between $63 million and $66 million in salary-cap space before making any cuts. Combine that with a youthful roster full of promise and there's reason for optimism.

"I think that we're at the point where the good feeling is we've bounced off the bottom," Elway said. "When you're losing, the whole thing is getting that locker room turned around. That's the most important thing, and where they feel like they have a chance to be successful. It's not, 'Here we go again.' We've talked about, 'Here we go again,' so many different times, especially over the last couple years, because there was that feeling. I think that we've finally gotten rid of that feeling and that locker room feels like they've got a chance to be successful."

Broncos coach Vic Fangio has talked about the importance of avoiding a "false positive" in their evaluations of players, schemes and how things went this past season, including their stretch drive.

The Broncos went 5-3 in the season's second half, including 4-1 during rookie quarterback Drew Lock's five starts. They had a 5-3 record at home and finished the regular season with the league's third youngest active roster. All combined -- the finish, the cap room, the draft picks -- and it's "John Elway time," according to Miller.

"I guess when you're losing, you kind of think that every offseason is the most important," Elway said just after the season ended.

But cap room is only good if it's used well. That hasn't really happened since the Broncos' 2014 free-agency class -- T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib -- helped push a largely draft-built roster to a Lombardi Trophy.

The Broncos' free-agency class in 2019 didn't work out nearly so well. Of their big-ticket signees -- Ja'Wuan James, Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson -- only Jackson played more than 63 snaps on the year. But as well as Jackson played, he still missed the final two games due to a suspension for an arrest for driving while impaired in September, when the team was mired in its winless first month.

"Unfortunately, there were guys that we counted on that couldn't go," Elway said. "That was unfortunate. That happens. That happens in this game, and you're going to have tough years and you're going to have good years when it comes down to injury. That's a big part of this game. When you have a lot of injuries, it's tough to get through that."

Callahan, however, was coming off a fractured foot when the Broncos signed him and James had never played more than eight games in back-to-back seasons in his five years with the Dolphins due to a variety of injuries.

The draft, too, will require some continued evaluation. The Broncos have rebounded with strong efforts in 2018 and 2019 following the crater left by the '16 and '17 classes. Elway has never picked more than 10 players in a draft and has only reached double digits twice in the previous nine -- 2011 and 2018 -- so a potential 12-pick starting point this time around is another rather large building block in waiting.

"[Elway] is going to get guys in here, young guys, like we have," Miller said. "It's like I said, we done with this losing s---, that's the way I feel ... we'll come back here ready to go."