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Gazette Premium Content Klee: For Super Bowl contenders like Broncos and Pats, free agency trumps draft

By Paul Klee Updated: May 8, 2014 at 10:52 pm

CENTENNIAL — One by one, man-child millionaires paraded across a New York stage. In their NFL careers, some will be stars; some will just be brain damaged.

You just don't know.

But in free agency? The Broncos knew what they were getting in Wes Welker. Louis Vasquez was a lock. Peyton Manning had the whole neck thing. But he turned out OK.

Do we really know how good Bradley Roby will be for the Broncos? They used a first-round pick on the Ohio State cornerback, 31st overall, in the NFL draft.

So he should be a good pro. Right?

"We thought he was a top-15 talent," Broncos bossman John Elway said late Thursday.

"He'll fit right in with the defense we're putting together right now," Elway added.

The draft is fun. The draft is entertainment. A man named Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix) wore a red jacket that could stop traffic and immediately turned me into a fan.

But is the draft how the Broncos return to the Super Bowl and this time win it? Nah.

In the draft, the Broncos get depth. In free agency, they get dynamic.

In a makeshift media room at the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters, I looked at two things. My watch, as the first round dragged on like a Coors Field classic when both teams burn a walkway from the bullpen to the mound.

Then I looked at the starters for the Broncos and Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos drafted 11 of their 22 starters. The Pats drafted 11 of their 22 starters. The other half arrived through free agency, waivers or the practice squad.

Denver drafted only three of its 22 starters in the first round. One's a star (Demaryius Thomas), one's young (Sylvester Williams), one's gone (Knowshon Moreno).

The Seahawks are rightfully celebrated for nabbing Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman in the draft. But Broncos-busters Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin were snagged through free agency or trades.

So it's OK to watch the draft and appreciate Ha Ha's red jacket. He brought style to the stage and deserved another round of applause.

But teams on the brink of winning a championship — teams like the Broncos and Patriots — probably aren't going to find their missing piece in the draft.

They might find it in free agency, though.

"We felt like we've done a nice job in free agency filling most of our holes there," Elway said this week.

The Broncos got better by adding Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware. The Pats kept pace with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (remember that name in January). Neither Denver nor New England has drafted particularly well in recent years; both sit atop the AFC.

Just one man's opinion, but nothing's changed in the AFC. It's still the Broncos and the Pats and the others are playing for third.

"They've been very, very successful over the last 10 years," Elway said of the Patriots. "So you have to give them credit and realize for us to get done what we need to get done, chances are we're going to run into them at some point in time."

As if to stick a needle in the side of the NFL schedule-makers, Elway added, "For us, it seems like we have an annual game in New England against them."

Do teams make their draft picks with one eye on their rivals?

Thursday night suggested so.

The Raiders drafted a pass rusher. The Chiefs drafted a pass rusher. The Patriots drafted a pass rusher.

When Manning is the biggest obstacle on the schedule, the No. 1 priority is bringing him down. Some of Denver's rivals used their No. 1 picks to help with that.

A former free agent, Manning not only guided the Broncos to the Super Bowl; his success in Denver probably affected how other teams drafted.

"I think all the teams did very well," Elway said. "They went defense."

Free agency trumps the draft, at least with AFC contenders like the Broncos and Pats.

Predicting the football future of a 21-year-old is like guessing the final resting spot of a Plinko ball. It could bounce any which way. It could be money. It could be a bummer.

In free agency, you know what you're getting.

Aside from Peyton's neck thing, at least.

Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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