The names of free-agent busts spill from the memories of Denver Broncos fans very easily.
Simeon Rice. Daryl Gardener. Travis Henry. Niko Koutouvides. Keary Colbert. Dre’ Bly.
There are many other failed free agents Mike Shanahan brought in during his 14 seasons as coach. The mistakes cost the Broncos millions of dollars — some were still affecting the team this past offseason — and are a reason Denver has only one playoff win since January 1999.
Like most things surrounding new coach Josh McDaniels, who leads the Broncos into Baltimore today with a 6-0 record, everything he did in free agency looks great. McDaniels didn’t have any glaring misses in free agency. His worst move was signing running back J.J. Arrington, but that wasn’t major. He failed a physical and was released long before training camp.
The players Denver signed — safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill, receiver Jabar Gaffney, running backs Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan, defensive tackle Ronald Fields, cornerback Andre Goodman, linebackers Andra Davis and Darrell Reid, to name some — have all played a role in Denver’s perfect start.
“We just try to make every decision a good one,” McDaniels said. “We try to get the best people we could in each spot. That’s all you can do. You try to make a really smart decision, a good decision, one that fits your philosophy and your football team with every choice you have to make.”
The Broncos didn’t have much wiggle room. As the Denver Post reported, the team has a league-high $29.6 million in “dead money” on its salary cap, most of which is the result of bad contracts from the Shanahan era.
Dawkins was by far the biggest name that Denver went out and acquired in free agency. Most of the moves were conservative, finding under-the-radar players who fit the system. Some, like Fields and Buckhalter, were backups most of their careers but have been inserted into bigger roles. Although some of the moves were not easy to understand, they paid off.
“The defensive side is what’s really impressive,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They went out and brought in a bunch of guys who, for whatever reason, were available. They selected carefully for the specific things they do, and bring to the table and the kind of people they were.”
Perhaps the Broncos’ evaluation methods will keep the team from a high percentage of failures in free agency. New England was very good at signing under-appreciated free agents, and McDaniels spent the past eight seasons in that system. His approach sounds very simple, and was effective.
“We tried to compile the best roster we could from top to bottom, with players we felt can help our football team win in multiple areas,” McDaniels said. “We’ve always said ‘Tough, smart, versatile,’ and that’s what we targeted in free agency and the draft.”