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 2004, the Broncos hoped to recapture some of that magic. They had not made a deep playoff run in several years, and in a conference with quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, they looked to build a daunting secondary through free agency. When five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro safety John Lynch became available, the Broncos moved swiftly to bring him to Denver.
How it happened
The second act in Lynch's career began with a sad ending to the first.
He had not wanted to leave Tampa, where he had grown from a promising third-round pick to a perennial Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion. Only a year and change after that championship, the Bucs decided to part ways with Lynch because of their salary cap situation. But in spite of Lynch’s request to restructure his contract, Tampa Bay declined to even start those negotiations.
As a result, Lynch was released and made a free agent. At least six teams expressed interest in Lynch, and he visited with several franchises, including the Broncos and the Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions.
Soon after he became a free agent, Lynch admitted that the Broncos were an attractive destination that he considered a finalist. He noted that his late grandmother, who lived in Boulder, was "one of the greatest Broncos fans of all time." Lynch also grew up as a fan of John Elway and had one of his posters in his room. And like Elway, Lynch learned from coach Jack Neumeier in high school and also was a quarterback who went to Stanford.
"It's one of the places I can see myself, that's for certain. And it's very much a possibility," Lynch said. "But by no means has anything been done, agreed upon or even in my mind been decided upon as a spot."
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan had been urged by multiple people to go after Lynch. One was Lynch's former teammate and future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, who provided some encouragement to Shanahan at a golf tournament. The other was Shanahan's wife, Peggy, who ran into Lynch and his family during a beach vacation.
"Well, why didn't we get him? Why didn't we draft him?," Mike Shanahan later recalled. "I couldn't come up with a good answer."
The Broncos would settle instead for winning the rights to his services in free agency. In the process, they hoped to build a team that could again go deep in the playoffs.
"When I think back to the three Super Bowl teams I have been with, it goes back to leadership, veteran players making plays in the playoffs," Shanahan said. "Hopefully, we can go a little bit farther than we have for the last few years."
The outcome and impact
About two decades later, it's easy to see that Lynch's stint went about as well as could be expected.
In his first season with the Broncos, he started 15 games and was a versatile piece in Denver's secondary with 66 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a career-best 10 passes defensed, one interception and three forced fumbles.
The 2004 season also featured his return to Tampa Bay. It was naturally an emotional game; Lynch said he did not sleep the night before and added that he may have been more nervous than before the Super Bowl. But his production that day showed little evidence of any weariness or nerves.
As the Bradenton Herald’s Mike Henry wrote: "Lynch showed Tampa Bay fans and management he has plenty left, making seven tackles and knocking down a last-second desperation heave by Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms."
Lynch and the Broncos further rounded into former the following season, as Denver went 13-3. In his 13th season, Lynch had one of his more productive seasons with 62 total tackles, two interceptions, eight passes defensed and two tackles for loss. He also set new career highs in sacks (four) and forced fumbles (four).
And as Shanahan had said when Denver signed Lynch, they went deeper in the playoffs than they had since the 1998 championship season. After a first-round bye, the Broncos toppled the back-to-back Super Bowl champion Patriots. With an interception and five tackles, Lynch was a key to Denver forcing Tom Brady into a 74.0 passer rating on the day.
While the Broncos fell in the AFC Championship the following week, the season represented the most success the franchise had found since their Super Bowl victories near the end of the previous decade.
A little over two years later, Lynch called it a career. In each of his four seasons in Denver, he earned a Pro Bowl selection, a remarkable achievement that pushed his career total to nine. Lynch is one of just four safeties since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to record eight Pro Bowls in a nine-year span.
"I don't think I've ever been around a guy that was more of a pro than John," Shanahan said. "He did everything you wanted him to do on the field. He did everything you wanted him to do off the field. He was like a coach in the locker room. They don't come around very often, and that's why I believe he'll be in the Hall of Fame."
Shanahan's prediction came true in 2021, when Lynch was inducted and gained his gold jacket. He also was inducted into the Broncos' Ring of Fame in 2016.
"I'm really grateful that the Broncos were there for me at that stage of my career," Lynch said after his election. "I had played 11 years in Tampa, and the thought of going anywhere else was really hard to digest. They gave me a really nice landing spot. My only regret is that we knocked on the door being in that championship game in '05 with Champ [Bailey] and I and that group, Al Wilson — we talk about it often — that we kind of let one get away right there. But my only regret is not having won a championship. But I gave it everything I had, and Denver became and will always be a special place in my heart and that of my family, as well."