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A behind-the-scenes look at how John Elway and the Broncos built a star-studded free-agent class


With a batted-down pass, the Broncos survived a last-minute rally by the Oakland Raiders and earned a 16-15 win in the final game of the season. Over the final five games, the Broncos surged to a 4-1 record behind rookie quarterback Drew Lock and entered the offseason with optimism. They were one of just three AFC teams to end the year with a 4-1 record or better.

Armed with a haul of draft picks and plenty of salary cap room, John Elway, Vic Fangio and the Broncos entered March with the opportunity to capitalize on the momentum and make a big splash. Over the course of just a few days, the Broncos executed a series of trades and big-name signings. When the dust settled on the first wave of free agency, the Broncos had filled their biggest needs and re-shaped the roster.

They did so as the COVID-19 crisis reshaped the NFL landscape and limited organizations to only the most essential employees during one of the busiest weeks of the NFL offseason.

Through a series of interviews with those involved in the process, has replicated a timeline of events. The following is a look at how Elway, Fangio and Co. navigated an unprecedented situation and, in the process, built one of the league's top free-agent classes:

MARCH 4, 2020 — Getting a head start

The Broncos had a decision to make. Several weeks earlier, the team's pro scouting department — which includes Director of Pro Personnel A.J. Durso and pro scouts Jordon Dizon and Patrick Walsh — had put the finishing touches on their reports on free agents. As Elway and Director of Player Personnel Matt Russell returned from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the reports were waiting. And the Broncos had options at cornerback.

By March 4, the Broncos were weighing a few potential free-agent cornerbacks, including Dallas' Byron Jones and Carolina's James Bradberry. The team operated under the assumption that Chris Harris Jr. — similar to their other unrestricted free agents set to hit the market— would likely not be back in Denver. Each year, the Broncos plan for free agency assuming that no UFAs will be back if they are set to hit the market. That only changes if Denver proactively approaches the player. Elway had previously told the media that he was prepared for Harris to test the market. The Broncos had no contact with Harris' agents at that time, and they had a need at cornerback.

That changed when Jacksonville's Dave Caldwell spoke with Russell. The two had worked years ago in the same area as scouts, and the Jaguars' general manager gauged the Broncos' level of interest in A.J. Bouye. 

Bouye, a 28-year-old cornerback with a Pro Bowl to his name, fit the Broncos' checklist. At 6-foot, 191 pounds, Bouye had the versatility, smarts and tackling ability to fit Fangio's defense. He excelled at zone defense and could also play man-to-man. He also was deemed to fit well in the locker room. 

Elway moved quickly to make the deal happen. He hashed out details with Caldwell, and they finalized a trade. The Broncos agreed to trade the 137th-overall pick, a fourth-round selection, to Jacksonville for Bouye, who has two years remaining on his contract. The trade would not become official until the league year began March 18, but the Broncos had their first piece.

MARCH 15, 2020 — Ready to make moves

On the eve of the NFL's legal-tampering period, the Broncos were prepared to make waves — and there was reason for optimism.

From a league level, the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified Sunday morning after the NFLPA voted to approve the 10-year deal. With labor peace guaranteed, free agency would proceed as scheduled.

Then, of course, there was a sense of excitement around the team.

Enthusiasm carried over from the season's finish, and Elway wanted to take an aggressive approach to upgrade the football team. With Lock at the quarterback position, the team's leadership felt there was a high likelihood they had found their franchise quarterback. And without having to worry about filling that spot, the Broncos could devote their resources to other areas of the football team.

Cornerback, guard and the defensive line were identified as the primary areas of need — and they'd already knocked out the cornerback position through the Bouye trade.

In the front office's eyes, it was the perfect storm.

Suddenly, though, the Broncos' free agency plans hit an unexpected speed bump.

On the evening of Sunday, March 15, Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis emailed the entire organization to mandate a two-week closure of UCHealth Training Center and Empower Field at Mile High. The decision was made after consultation with the team's medical staff, led by Director of Sports Medicine Steve Antonopulos and Head Athletic Trainer Vince Garcia, as well as discussions with the organization's leadership team.

The COVID-19 situation was becoming increasingly serious. The proactive and precautionary mandatory closure was necessary to help ensure the safety of the team's employees and the community at large.

Nearly all employees were given Monday to collect needed items from their workplaces before they would have to work from home. Coach Fangio, who was in the office working on Sunday, fired off a text message to his assistant coaches early in the evening explaining that assistant coaches would have to work from home for at least the next two weeks.

There were a few exceptions. Rehabbing players could continue to access the facility, and those with critical operational roles also remained.

Elway, Fangio, Russell, Durso, Vice President of Football Administration Rich Hurtado, Director of Team Administration Mark Thewes and PR chief Patrick Smyth were on hand to administer football matters.

They were the "Elway 7," as one member of the group jokingly referred to the bare-bones staff of seven individuals.

Senior Vice President of Operations Chip Conway was there to help with facility access. IT and video needs were handled by Senior Vice President of Information Technology Russ Trainor and Video Director Steve Boxer, respectively.

That was it.

Elway's crew felt confident and ready to go. Its work — much of it done by Durso and the pro scouts of ahead of time in coordination with Elway and Russell — was finished. It was time to execute the plan.

MARCH 16, 2020 — Let the (legal) tampering begin

The morning offered hints of a normal routine.

Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and a couple of other players entered UCHealth Training Center to rehab from their injuries.

It didn't take long, though, for the building to empty out. The coaching wing was empty, as was much of the rest of the building. Normally home to more than 100 full-time employees, UCHealth Training Center was nearly vacant. The cafeteria — normally bustling — was quiet and dark.

Instead, the action was concentrated around a hallway on the second floor of the facility. Along the corridor, Elway's, Thewes' and Hurtado's offices sit in succession. Russell's and Durso's are just around the corner, and Fangio's is located down the hall. Each had disinfectant wipes waiting on their desk, and they worked to maintain six feet of physical separation at all times.

The rest of the building may have been silent, but there was excitement and urgency in this part of UCHealth Training Center. The communication was quick and direct, with Durso, Russell and Fangio making countless trips in and out of Elway's office.

Elway made dozens of trips out of his office to the right, checking in with Russell and Durso on their latest intel. He frequently dashed straight out of his office and made the long walk down the hall to ask Fangio's opinion on a position of need.

As 10 a.m. struck and the negotiation period began, each focused on their various roles.

Graham Glasgow, a fifth-year guard/center who did not allow a sack last season and has missed one game in the previous two seasons, was the first target.

They felt comfortable having secured Bouye, but Glasgow would represent another major step. With Glasgow, the Broncos were aggressive out of the gate, and Hurtado worked to make the numbers click. The Broncos allocate a certain amount of money to each free agent they want to target — and Hurtado takes care of the discussions with the agents.

As Elway's crew broke for lunch from Snarf's — picked up by Russell in a to-go order from the local sandwich shop — they came to terms with their new normal.

Supporting local restaurants for lunch – they'd eat Qdoba on Thursday and Famous Dave's BBQ on Friday – replaced meals cooked on-site. They sat at separate tables. They watched the news. They discussed the latest developments in a changing world with the serious and evolving coronavirus.

Then, some good news. By Monday afternoon, Glasgow's representation and the Broncos had agreed to terms on a four-year contract.

In Elway's office, where the group would gather from time to time to wait, they were jubilant. And relieved. They had landed another piece, and they could continue to move forward with their Plan A for free agency.

During a week when bad news can change a team's entire plan, the Broncos didn't get much.

MARCH 18, 2020 — Quite the backup plan

When Elway's group returned to UCHealth Training Center for the first day of the new league year, they were in store for more fireworks than the previous day.

As the rest of the league continued to make splash signings, the Broncos had largely been quiet on Tuesday. They made a pair of minor moves, agreeing to terms with a backup quarterback in Jeff Driskel and agreeing to trade fullback Andy Janovich to the Browns for a 2021 seventh-round pick.

In a rapidly changing situation around the NFL, Thewes worked with the Browns to finalize the trade papers. With NFL restrictions in place that prevented a team's new players from visiting their facility, the Broncos helped Cleveland by having their own medical staff administer a physical to complete the Janovich trade.

Thewes — who also updated the rest of the team on league rules, handled questions on physicals, the language for contracts and trade papers with other teams — would soon have another trade to help administer.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Broncos pulled themselves out of a bidding war with Cincinnati that had materialized for Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader. The Broncos were interested in adding the sixth-year player, but only at the right price. Denver had a plan — and the Broncos weren't willing to deal with buyer's remorse by overspending.

When it became clear that Reader would push the Broncos over their budget, they pivoted to a more cost-effective and equally impactful player.

For several days, Elway had been discussing the framework of a trade for Jurrell Casey with Titans GM Jon Robinson. Russell and Robinson worked together in New England, and the relationship helped the Broncos land a dominant interior player.

Both teams saw the deal as a win. The Titans would be able to unload a sizeable contract as they aimed to add cap room, and the Broncos would add a five-time Pro Bowler for a seventh-round pick.

Early in the morning, Elway and his crew were in the Broncos' gym on stationary bikes as the deal was agreed to by Tennessee. They quickly sprayed and wiped down the bikes as they discussed their key additions to the defense.

For a fourth- and seventh-round pick, the Broncos had added two Pro Bowl players.

Inside the building, the team viewed the moves as home runs. Both players were viewed as key pieces in the Broncos' efforts to solidify a defense that could slow Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes.

Before free agency had even officially begun, the Broncos had filled all three of their major needs.

MARCH 20, 2020 — One final splash

The speculation is always natural.

Whenever big-name players are on the move, fans and media members will link them to any organization that has anything close to a need at the position.

But where there's smoke, there isn't always fire.

At wide receiver, Amari Cooper was mentioned as an option for Denver by several media outlets in the leadup to free agency. Yet while the Broncos did their due diligence at receiver, the team didn't view the position as a major need because of the depth in the upcoming draft.

The Broncos were also never interested in adding one of the top free-agent quarterbacks. Denver always planned to move forward with Lock.

The Broncos clarified their existing quarterback depth chart Thursday morning when Elway called Joe Flacco to let him know the Broncos would be releasing him.

But on Friday morning, they did move to add a big name, as they looked to secure another weapon for their young quarterback.

The Broncos initially gauged running back Melvin Gordon's interest when the free-agency period began, and they monitored the situation until late in the week. At that point, it became clear that Gordon was interested — and at the right price.

That's when Elway made the call to get a deal done.

Hurtado called Gordon's agent and made the offer. As various media reports popped up stating Gordon was negotiating with a mystery team, the Broncos waited.

Reports quickly began to identify the Broncos as being in play for Gordon. Smyth's phone exploded with texts from reporters.

"Is there a deal being worked out with Melvin Gordon?" one local writer texted.

"1-year deal for Gordon?" another national reporter wrote.

Finally, Hurtado left the rest of the group back in Elway's office and retreated to his own office. He shut the door and placed a call to Gordon's agent, asking if there was any update.

"Do we have a deal?" Hurtado said, standing over his desk while overlooking the Broncos' practice fields from his window.

"Yes," Gordon's agent responded.

The Broncos had been interested in Gordon since he was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and they'd watched him beat up their own team on several occasions while with the Chargers.

Now, he was on their side with the two-year agreement.

Hurtado went into Elway's office to share the good news. Inside Elway's office — with Elway seated at his desk, Fangio seated on a leather couch, Russell and Thewes in chairs across from the desk and Durso standing — the group gathered to reflect on the latest news.

Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur would later have a phone conversation with Gordon to welcome the two-time Pro Bowler to Denver.

With Gordon in the mix, the group thought they had as good a running back room as there is in the NFL.

Their final major piece was in place.

Elway left the office around 6 p.m. On his way to the parking lot, he stopped by the fireplace outside the cafeteria to tape video messages of support for the medical staff at UCHealth and the grocery workers of King Soopers. Fangio departed a short time later after taping similar messages in his office for the staff at Children's Hospital Colorado and the community at large.

The Broncos' football leadership headed into the weekend encouraged by the first wave of free agency.

The Aftermath:

In the days that followed, the Broncos added tight end Nick Vannett and punter Sam Martin.

They also agreed to terms with a number of their own players on new contracts, including defensive lineman Shelby Harris on Friday night.

Those moves, combined with the four splash additions, made the Broncos better.

Inside the building, Elway's crew felt cautiously optimistic about what they had done to improve the roster. They acknowledged the team still needs to win games, but the previous week was a major step in the right direction.

In Bouye, Glasgow, Casey and Gordon, the Broncos added four top-flight, impact players who were excited to join the building momentum in Denver.

And Elway and Co. aren't done — they'll just have to work remotely.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that NFL facilities would be closed through at least April 8.

Wednesday was the last day the Broncos' bare-bones staff was allowed at UCHealth Training Center. Elway picked up a to-go order from Chicago Mike's for the group's final lunch together for the foreseeable future.

Over cheesesteaks and fries inside the Broncos' draft room—and with several open chairs between them — the group discussed the plan to work from home in preparation for the NFL Draft. They felt confident with the work that's already been done to construct their board.

That work will continue from home.

The Broncos' IT and video departments set up Elway's home office for him on Monday night, enabling him to watch all prospect tape with a feed connected to the Broncos' servers. They spent Tuesday morning at Fangio's house, doing the same for him.

As the nation continues to fight COVID-19, it's just a minor challenge for them compared to the serious issues being faced by the community and world.

If the free agency period proves anything, it's this: They're up for it.

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