ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **As John Elway often says, he wants to win from now on -- and a crucial step toward that goal is keep as much of the Broncos' top-flight defense together as possible.
That includes safety Darian Stewart. After flourishing since signing a two-year contract in March 2015, he agreed to terms with the Broncos on a four-year contract extension Saturday, keeping a key piece of the "No Fly Zone" with the team.
Stewart becomes the third defensive starter to agree to an in-season contract extension in the last three seasons, joining CB Chris Harris Jr. (December 2014) and Derek Wolfe (January 2016, two days before the divisional playoffs).
"This is a life-changing opportunity for me and my family," Stewart said. "I love my teammates and coaches, as well as our fans."
The seven-year veteran's range, steady deameanor and ball-hawking nature have made him a perfect complement to T.J. Ward, who joined the Broncos in free agency one year before Stewart's arrival.
"Darian Stewart has been an integral part of our defense for the last two seasons and we're excited he'll continue to be a big part of our team for the next four years," Elway said. "He brings tremendous physicality and toughness to our defense, and he displays great leadership on and off the field."
Stewart first came to Denver in part because of Head Coach Gary Kubiak, who was on the Baltimore Ravens' staff in 2014, Stewart's only season there after four years with the Rams. Kubiak was the Ravens' offensive coordinator, so he did not coach Stewart directly. However, he took note of how the safety would walk over to the offensive practice field to study what the offense did after the defense had concluded its work.
"Obviously I'm on the other side of the ball, but I always respected how he practiced and how he worked," Kubiak said Nov. 15.
When Kubiak arrived in Denver, the Broncos soon faced a need for a starting safety to pair with T.J. Ward after Rahim Moore departed for Houston in free agency.
As Elway made his free-agency plans, Kubiak spoke up for Stewart, whose performance had gradually improved over four years in St. Louis followed by his 2014 campaign in Baltimore.
"When you're a coach and you go to a new organization and you stand up for somebody, you sure as hell hope you're right," Kubiak said. "I told John [Elway] that I thought he'd really fit in. He's a good kid and loves to play."
With his wife and daughter by his side, safety Darian Stewart signed the contract that will assure his place in Denver for years to come. (photos by Ben Swanson)
From Stewart's first regular-season game through today, he's proved Kubiak right. His final-minute, end-zone interception of Joe Flacco preserved a 19-13 win over Baltimore that opened Kubiak's stewardship with a win and set the Broncos on a path that ended in a world championship.
Stewart's first big play as a Bronco came without Ward alongside him; the Pro Bowler was suspended for that game. Four days later, the two safeties played together for the first time in the regular season, and one of the league's best safety partnerships was formed. Their chemistry and communication was the final step in making the "No Fly Zone" one of the finest secondaries in recent history.
The defense grew powerful -- and Stewart grew with it.
"Just watching him every day has been fun to see," Kubiak said.
And now he and the Broncos will get to reap the rewards of Stewart's continued progress for years to come.
"We have a chance to do something great as a team," Stewart said. "I want to keep winning, and I'm excited about what the future holds."