ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos and New England Patriots' series of moves and countermoves in the first week of free agency is reminiscent of the superpowers at the height of the Cold War.
The Broncos agree to terms with Aqib Talib, and the Patriots replace him a day later with Darrelle Revis, then follow with the signing of ex-Seahawk Brandon Browner. New England corrals wide receiver Brandon LaFell from the Panthers, and then the Broncos strike by signing fellow 2010 draft pick Emmanuel Sanders from the Steelers; in both cases the wideouts are defined as much by their untapped potential as their accomplishments to date.
"Well, you always know you have to go through New England if you look at their track record the last 10 years," said Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway on Sunday. "They're a team that you're going to have to deal with. For us to get done what we want to get done, you've got to be able to get done. It's kind of a fun arms race, and we'll see what happens next year."
As they go into the 2014 season, it's the Patriots who know they have to go through the Broncos, having fallen short in January's AFC Championship Game in Denver. And in spite of a humbling 43-8 loss in Super Bowl XLVIII and the release of 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey, the free-agency losses of starter Eric Decker, Pro Bowler Zane Beadles and defensive captain Wesley Woodyard, the Broncos still appear to be the team to beat in the AFC.
The return of injured players such as Ryan Clady, Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. helps that status, but so do the acquisitions of Talib, Sanders, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
"You have your wish list. We're fortunate enough that we've gotten to 'X' off a lot of the guys on our wish list that were able to come here," said Elway.
And the Broncos have done this without risking a stint in salary-cap jail in two to three years' time.
"We had a bunch of cap space going into this year. Obviously with Champ's situation, and then with (Chris) Kuper retiring, it gave us more cap space, so we had plenty of cap space," Elway said. "That's why the misnomer of us winning now -- sure, we want to win now, but we've also set ourselves up -- we've got four football players for three-year-or-longer contracts, and they're all young except for DeMarcus."
Talib is 28. Ward is 27. Sanders turns 27 on Monday. That leaves only the 32-year-old Ware as a player who isn't in what is usually considered the prime years at most positions.
"That just goes to show you that it's not for 'now.' We want young football players that are going to be here for a long time, and they're still young in their career and continue to get better," said Elway. "I think that, yeah, obviously the age thing is big, and that's one thing we've been in -- we've had some success with, is being able to plug in the right guys that are older guys in the right spots, but that's usually been around training camp, where something would happen. There's still the basis to get as young as we can with the best football players we can."
But it's no use getting younger for a team with a quarterback going into his 17th season unless it's accompanied by improvement, which Elway believes to be the case.
"I really feel like we got better," Elway said. "There's no question we're trying to win this year, but we're also trying to get a good base for a good football team for a long time."
Beyond Ware, who already has a candidacy that will bring him into discussions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ward and Talib have already earned plaudits; each has been to the Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro last season. Sanders, on the other hand, is more of a projection; he has yet to post a 1,000-yard season, although his playing time has steadily increased.
"With Decker leaving, to be able to get another wideout -- especially a guy of this caliber, we're extremely excited about it," Elway said. "He was the guy that we had targeted from the very get-go and we were fortunate enough to land him."
But the key will be to use Sanders -- and every new arrival -- properly. For example, Sanders has the ability to return kickoffs and punts; he did both in Pittsburgh, although more than half (29 of 57) career returns came as a rookie in 2010. He expressed a willingness to handle those chores again. However …
"A lot of times you don't want a guy that valuable back there returning," Elway said. "But right now he's the one that we have on our roster."
Right now, yes. But not necessarily "from now on," as Elway often says of his team-building plans.