With the start of the league year 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 championship teams, from the first in 1997 to the most recent in 2015.
To kick off this series, let's look back to one of those early moves, when defensive end Alfred Williams looked to make his Colorado homecoming after years in Cincinnati and San Francisco.
How it happened
In Mike Shanahan's first season as the Broncos' head coach in 1995, the team finished 8-8 and looked to make big strides in the offseason, particularly on defense. That unit was in the middle of the pack in points and yards allowed but struggled to put pressure on opposing passers or generate turnovers.
"Denver needs a leader, and a sack leader," Adam Schefter, then of the Rocky Mountain News, wrote before free agency began on Feb. 16, 1996.
The main focus was firmly on pass-rushing defensive ends. The free-agent group was a promising one, with six-time Pro Bowler Leslie O'Neal considered the most-established player. In addition, there was Chuck Smith and Williams, who were younger but also not quite as consistent as O'Neal. When free agency began, the Broncos set meetings with each player.
Williams made no secret of his desire to join the Broncos. When the former Colorado Buffalo entered the NFL, he hoped to be drafted by Denver, but he was instead picked by Cincinnati. Still, with a home not far from Denver in the municipality of Louisville, he held on to his dream.
"I live here, and playing in Colorado would be a great situation for me," Williams told The Denver Post’s Jim Armstrong after his visit. "In my little perfect world, I'd be here. I'd be sitting right by the mountains with my binoculars so I can see CU."
As Shanahan and the Broncos made their decision, they opted for Williams, making a bet on his potential.
"I think he has a big future in front of him," Shanahan said. "We'll see if we were right. I don't want to take anything away from Leslie, because he's a heck of a football player. But you have to make decisions, and I feel good about this decision. We got a guy who wanted to be here and was going to do anything he possibly could to be here, even if it meant turning down some offers that were a bit more lucrative than the one he got here."
The outcome and impact
While there was some initial external doubt about Williams' potential impact, he cast it aside from his first game, a 1.5-sack performance against the Jets. Two weeks later, Williams put together a two-sack day and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
A little over a month into the season, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King called Williams the second-best free-agent signing of the year, calling him the "best pass rusher this season west of the Bills' Bruce Smith."
Williams provided an element that was exactly what the Broncos hoped for, helping the team to a 13-3 record. Denver climbed to 40 sacks, good for eighth in the league, and Williams was responsible for 13 of them. He was also a first-team All-Pro selection and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career.
The next season, as the Broncos brought in Neil Smith in free agency to bookend a pass-rush tandem with Williams. Together, they were enough to help push the Broncos to their first Super Bowl victory. In the divisional round in Kansas City, each defensive end recorded two sacks as Denver eked out a 14-10 defensive showcase to move on to the conference title game and, eventually, Super Bowl XXXII. A year later, they again won the Super Bowl as Denver went back-to-back against the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Williams spent another three seasons with the Broncos before his NFL career came to a close. Today, he remains a fixture in the Denver sports scene, as he is a co-host of KOA Radio's "The KOA Sports Zoo" weekday show alongside Dave Logan.