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Broncos free-agency history in focus: The 2014 class pushes the Broncos back to a championship

With the start of the league year arriving Wednesday, we're taking a deep 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.

The most significant group for the most recent title team came to town in 2014. The four biggest signings would all earn Pro Bowl nods in Denver, and each would have significant roles in pushing the Broncos to their win in Super Bowl 50.

How it happened

In the wake of the Broncos' loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver approached free agency with aggression and a clear focus on bolstering its defense.

Behind a historically powerful offense, the Broncos managed to overcome teams in spite of a defense that limped into its final game of the 2013 season having lost several key starters to injuries, including Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe.

"The Broncos have demonstrated they are plenty good enough during the regular season," Mike Klis, then of the Denver Post, wrote. "If they want to take that next step toward giving Seattle a better fight, the back of the defense is a logical place to start."

To make those improvements, they looked to two of the best free agents: safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.

Ward was the first domino to fall, as the Broncos beat out about 10 other interested teams to come to an agreement on the first day of free agency.

Within hours, the Broncos' class went from solid start to a great one, as Talib agreed to a deal with Denver that evening. The move was a bit of a shock, as the Broncos were largely expected to try to retain their own free-agent cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Instead, the Broncos landed arguably the top cornerback in the class in Talib, who was fresh off a four-interception season with the Patriots that earned him his first Pro Bowl selection.

The next day, Talib was set to fly out from his offseason home in Dallas, and as it turned out, his flight would help the Broncos get yet another big-time free agent.

As he sat on the plane, seven-time Pro Bowl pass rusher DeMarcus Ware walked past during boarding procedures. Ware, the Cowboys' all-time leader in sacks, was on the hunt for a new home in the NFL after being released by the Cowboys a day earlier. Denver, which also had shown interest in five-time Pro Bowler Jared Allen, was lined up as his first visit.

The impromptu visit indicated to both Talib and Ware that the Broncos were driven to capitalize on their championship window with Peyton Manning at quarterback.

"I was on in first class of my flight and I just looked and it was DeMarcus Ware," Talib said in 2014. "He was going to Denver with me, so it hit me we might be together here ... I was like the first one on the plane and then I see [him] walking up the aisle and sit down. That's serious, right there."

In Denver, the two got dressed in the locker room — Talib for his signing and press conference, Ware for his meeting with Broncos brass.

"I remember when we were sitting in there], I looked at Aqib and Aqib looked at me, and we smiled at each other,” [Ware recalled in 2020. "Because we knew exactly what we had to do. And that was one of those cool moments where I knew that it was that time."

During his meeting, Ware decided his free-agency tour was over after just one stop. He'd be a Bronco.

The move would add a veteran presence to Denver's defense akin to when it had signed Manning. While Miller's return from a torn ACL was still in progress, Ware was expected to form a dominant pass-rush tandem with the former Defensive Rookie of the Year.

"A Talib-Ward-Ware trio of signings is about as good as they could reasonably do in free agency," Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel wrote.

Denver, though, was not done.

While their biggest needs were on defense, they also had a hole on offense at wide receiver after Eric Decker signed with the Jets.

Enter, former Pittsburgh wideout Emmanuel Sanders. The former SMU product developed into a reliable and underutilized receiver alongside Antonio Brown, and in free agency, he'd have his chance to find a bigger role. He very nearly signed with the Chiefs before a last-minute call and offer came from the Broncos, as he recalled at his retirement press conference in 2022.

"[Chiefs head coach] Andy Reid had left and I'm sitting there," Sanders said. "We were trying to work out the logistics because I wanted to sign for three years, and they wanted me to sign for four. I told them, 'No, I'm only signing for three [years].' Andy Reid leaves [because] he thinks I'm signing with the Chiefs. All of the sudden, I'm telling him — I get a call in the facility that I can go to Denver. I tell them I'm going to Denver. I'm there in their facility and I remember telling them, 'I just want to go back to my hotel and figure out the situation. I don't know what I want to do. I might sign, but I don't know.' I was just trying to get out of there so I could go celebrate because I'm about to go play with Peyton freaking Manning — 'The Sheriff.'"

The outcome and impact

The results are easy to sum up: All four of the players would hoist the Lombardi Trophy within two years and earn Pro Bowl selections.

The three defensive newcomers would be especially integral parts of one of the best defenses in history in 2015, as the Broncos won the organization's third world championship.

As Denver expected, Ware still had plenty in the tank. He was back in double digits in the sack column in 2014 and was also a mentor for Miller, who bounced back from injury to become Denver's Super Bowl 50 MVP and, eventually, the franchise's all-time leader in sacks.

"He came at a vital point in my life," Miller said in 2022. "I thought I knew what it took to be a superstar in this league. I thought I knew what it took to be successful in this league. But I was wrong. When DeMarcus got there, his locker was right across from me. We talked about everything."

With a Super Bowl ring in hand and an additional two Pro Bowls as a Bronco on top of his seven in Dallas, Ware cemented his Hall of Fame career. In February, he was elected to the Hall's Class of 2023.

Talib and Ward formed half of the 2015 team's starting secondary, which was more commonly known as the "No-Fly Zone." That unit allowed the fewest passing yards in back-to-back seasons, and during the Super Bowl run, they stifled Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton.

The veteran cornerback made four Pro Bowls — one for each season he played in Denver — and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2016. Talib picked off 11 passes in four seasons as a Bronco, and of those 11, he returned six for touchdowns. During the 2015 season, his scores keyed the Broncos to two wins, which helped ensure home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.

Ward also made a Pro Bowl during his time in Denver, and his versatility provided an important asset for the Broncos. A heavy-hitter, Ward often played in the box, providing extra run support or pass-rush help in certain scenarios.

For Sanders, the decision to come to Denver opened up doors for his career.

As expected, playing with Manning was "wide receiver heaven." In his first season, he nearly doubled his receiving yardage from the previous year with 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns. The 2014 season also marked his first career Pro Bowl selection.

Sanders followed it up with two additional 1,000-yard seasons and became one of the most-productive receivers in franchise history. Today, he ranks seventh in receptions and 10th in receiving yards in the Broncos' record books.

But beyond the numbers, Sanders and this group of extremely talented free agents made an even bigger impact with the winning culture of which they were a major part.

"Coming here in 2014 with Aqib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and that free agency class," Sanders said in 2022, "we were sitting around, playing dominoes and having the time of our lives while winning games. It was some of the best years of my life — and my career — if not the best. Those times and those moments I will never forget. I'll always cherish those times."

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