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Broncos free-agency history in focus: Ed McCaffrey reunites with Mike Shanahan


With the start of the league year less than a week away, we're taking an in-depth dive into the stories behind some of the best free-agent signings in franchise history since the start of modern free agency in 1993. For the Broncos, free agency has been a key part of building Super Bowl teams, from the first in 1997 to the most recent in 2015. 

In this edition, we're looking back at one of the first signings of Mike Shanahan's head-coaching tenure in Denver: wide receiver Ed McCaffrey.

How it happened

In his first offseason as the Broncos' head coach, Shanahan wasted little time making moves to improve Denver's roster.

In the 1995 free-agency period — one that Adam Schefter called "March Madness" for the Broncos in a Rocky Mountain News article — Denver added more than a dozen new players over the span of several weeks, including seven projected starters.

McCaffrey, who previously played for Shanahan in San Francisco when he was the 49ers' offensive coordinator, was a gangly, fluid athlete with sure hands but limited opportunities. He received just 14 targets in his 16 games with the 49ers, but he would be one of Shanahan's targets as a free agent the following spring. 

"Anytime you've got a guy who has that size and speed, it makes it much easier for a quarterback," Shanahan said in a 1995 Denver Post story. "He's going to be able to play a lot of positions. He's played wide receiver, he's played tight end in the three-wide look and he's also played halfback in the four-wide look."

For McCaffrey, reuniting with Shanahan itself was a major selling point.

"It was much easier with Mike here," McCaffrey said. "I've got all the confidence in the world in Mike as a head coach. He's proven what he can do over the years in San Francisco, and I expect the same sort of result here."

McCaffrey was not the biggest addition during that signing period. That honor belonged to defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, the five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro who signed a sizable contract with the Broncos after being cut by the Browns. McCaffrey was expected to become the Broncos' No. 3 receiver.

Along with the flurry of spending came high expectations. Time would tell whether the group would meet them.

The outcome and impact

That 1995 season would be one of growing pains as Denver staggered to an 8-8 record in Year 1 under Shanahan. McCaffrey caught 39 passes for 477 yards and two touchdowns, finishing as the team's third receiver behind Anthony Miller and tight end Shannon Sharpe.

But in the years that followed, Shanahan and McCaffrey alike would round into form in Denver.

In 1996, the franchise had its most-successful regular season in team history with a 13-3 record, and it followed that up with back-to-back Super Bowl wins. 

During that three-year span, McCaffrey went from rotational receiver to bona fide starter with wide receiver Rod Smith as the other starter. McCaffrey totaled 25 touchdowns over that time, had his first 1,000-yard season and picked up a Pro Bowl selection in 1998.

"I feel so blessed," McCaffrey said as his career reached its apex. "It wasn't that long ago that I was out of work, scrapping to get a job to play for somebody. … Now I'm having the most fun I've ever had playing football."

McCaffrey also became one of the team's more recognizable faces. McDonald's hired him to star in TV commercials. In a 1998 appearance on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," McCaffrey caught a pass from Regis Philbin during mid-morning traffic on Columbus Avenue in downtown New York City.

Even after John Elway retired, McCaffrey continued to play at a high level. He added another 1,000-yard season in 1999 and set new career marks in 2000 with 101 receptions for 1,317 yards. While the following season ended abruptly for McCaffrey because of a serious leg injury, he returned in 2002 with 69 catches for 903 yards.

Upon his retirement following the 2003 season, McCaffrey was fourth in receptions and receiving yards and third in touchdown receptions in franchise history. 

"He was Mr. Reliable, and consistency was his middle name," former Broncos wideout and then-receivers coach Steve Watson said at the time. "When you needed a big play, when you needed a guy to set somebody up with a double move, when you needed somebody working the whole game to move the chains, Ed was your guy."

Looking back to that free agency class, McCaffrey emerged as arguably the best signing of the bunch. Perry made another Pro Bowl in 1996, but the team parted ways with him midway through the 1997 season. Guard Mark Schlereth, also signed that offseason, was named to a Pro Bowl as well, and was an integral part of a dominant offensive line that paved the way for Terrell Davis and kept John Elway out of harm's way.

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