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Counting down the top 10 Broncos free-agent signings under John Elway

Some clubs are offseason champions. Others use the offseason to build champions.

Five AFC West titles, two AFC championships and one Vince Lombardi Trophy are direct results of what Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway managed to pull off during the free-agent signing periods of the previous six years.

With over $36 million of salary-cap room, the Broncos are positioned to add to their recent free-agent successes.

But which players represent the 10 best free-agent pickups of the Elway era?

10. WES WELKER, 2013

Welker and emerging young tight end Julius Thomas were the final pieces of an offensive puzzle that powered Peyton Manning and the Broncos to a slew of league records in 2013. Only a series of concussions slowed Welker down, but in his first season with the Broncos, he burnished a resume that could net him Hall of Fame consideration because of how he changed the possibilities for a slot receiver.


Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's contributions during his only Broncos season must be noted, but it was Knighton who not only played beyond expectations, but had the best game of his career in just about the highest-leverage situation possible -- the 2013 AFC Championship Game, where his interior pass rush effectively provided the nail in the Patriots' coffin during the second half. Knighton would eventually become a team captain.


The 2011 free-agent period was the most bizarre in NFL history, as the offseason lockout pushed the signing period all the way back to the start of training camp. When the Broncos signed McGahee, he had just been cut and was coming off the worst season of his career with the Ravens in 2010. Some thought he might be done. Instead, he responded with a Pro Bowl flourish, galloping for 1,199 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry as the Broncos led the league in rushing. While Tim Tebow got the national spotlight that year, McGahee provided the every-down blows that ensured the offense had a reliable bread-and-butter option that made the club's first AFC West crown in six years possible.


Although injuries accumulated quickly for Vasquez in 2014 and 2015, his first season in Denver was arguably the finest for a guard in Denver annals. He remains the only first-team All-Pro guard in Broncos history, and his willingness to put team before himself showed in his flexibility in moving to right tackle when the need arose in 2014.


Value is the watchword for Stewart, who signed a two-year contract to replace previous starter Rahim Moore, who had moved on to Houston in that year's free-agent period. Moore was cut by the Texans one year into his three-year contract, while Stewart immediately flourished as the final piece in the "No-Fly Zone" puzzle, earning a four-year contract extension that he signed last November. His first Pro Bowl appearance followed two months later.

5. DeMARCUS WARE, 2014

Sack numbers don't measure Ware's impact on the Broncos during his three seasons with the team; his leadership was also essential to the Broncos coming together to win Super Bowl 50. Back and forearm injuries the last two years slowed him down, but Ware remained effective in short bursts and cemented his Hall of Fame status with two Pro Bowls and a dominant postseason run as the Broncos sprinted to their third world championship.

4. T.J. WARD, 2014

It's easy to forget that two other safeties got more buzz leading up to the 2014 free-agency period -- Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd. Whitner effectively replaced Ward with the Browns; Byrd got $28 million guaranteed from the Saints. Neither is still with those teams, with Byrd being cut after three injury-marred seasons. Meanwhile, Ward powers onward, providing the thump in the box for the "No-Fly Zone." The Broncos' transition to a 3-4 alignment created a perfect sub-package role for Ward, who is effectively as much a linebacker as a safety.  Few players possess his skill set, which the Broncos have used to great effect.


Few players delivered more in terms of value than Sanders, who lingered on the market until the end of the first wave of free agency because he had been a No. 3 wide receiver in Pittsburgh. The Broncos signed him to a three-year, $15-million deal, and he quickly proved to be a bargain, handling the step up from No. 3 to No. 2 with aplomb while breaking every season-long career standard in his first Broncos campaign. A two-time Pro Bowler in Denver, Sanders led the Broncos in receiving yardage during the 2015 postseason that culminated in a world title.

2. AQIB TALIB, 2014

At the time the Broncos signed Talib, he was coming off the best season of his career to that point. But his first five campaigns had been marred by injuries and a four-game suspension in 2012.  Fortunately for the Broncos, the 2013 season that led to Talib's big contract was just the beginning, and he's only improved his on-field performance from there. With three consecutive Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro selection since joining the Broncos, Talib has more than lived up to his contract.


Not just the best signing of the Elway era, but given the degree to which Manning transformed the franchise's trajectory, it could be considered the best free-agent pickup in NFL history -- or at least since the Packers signed Reggie White in 1993, the first year of the current free-agency system. The Broncos rolled the dice on Manning's surgically-repaired neck holding up, and once he got accustomed to the Broncos after some early ups and downs, he delivered just over two full seasons from October 2012 through November 2014 that represented his career apex. He had just enough left in his final season to push the Broncos over the goal line for their third Super Bowl win, making Manning the first quarterback to start and win Super Bowls with different franchises.

Take a look back at the Broncos' top 10 modern-era free-agent signings, as ranked by an average rating from the digital media office. (AP Images)

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