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Ranking John Elway's best free-agent signings

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the start of free agency nears, the Broncos could soon agree to deals with some of the franchise's next best players.

Any one of the players that President of Football Ops./GM John Elway signs could leave a lasting impact on the franchise — and we'll soon know who is in the free agent Class of 2020.

But before March 18 arrives,'s Aric DiLalla took some time to rank the best free-agent signings of Elway's front-office tenure.


In his first season with the Broncos, the 10-year veteran showed he has plenty of good football left. The Broncos' only 2019 free-agent signing to see significant playing time, Jackson was an emotional leader of the secondary and played 13 games as he earned Pro Bowl alternate status. Jackson's best game of the season came in a Week 14 game against Houston, his former team. The Alabama product tallied 11 tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown. Jackson could easily rise up this list with another strong season in 2020.


Knighton played just two seasons in Denver, but he started all 32 regular-season games and recorded five sacks during that stint. During the 2013 postseason, he tallied 10 tackles, three TFLs, a sack and two quarterback hits during the Broncos' postseason run to Super Bowl XLVIII.


Vasquez is one of just three players on this list to earn a first-team All-Pro nod while in Denver. He earned that honor and a Pro Bowl nod in 2013, when he split time between right guard and right tackle. Vasquez was a mainstay on the Broncos' offensive line as they went to two Super Bowls in three seasons.


One of Elway's first free-agent signings, McGahee made the Pro Bowl in 2011 as he rushed for 1,199 yards and helped the Broncos make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. McGahee finished eighth in the league in rushing that season and helped the Broncos finish first in the league in that category. McGahee suffered an injury that derailed his 2012 season, and he left the team after just two years. 

6. S T.J. WARD

Part of the Broncos' mega-class of 2014, Ward earned a Pro Bowl appearance during his first season in Denver and then recorded an interception and fumble recovery a year later in Super Bowl 50. Ward played strong safety during the peak of the "No-Fly Zone," but he was also the first member to depart the team. The Broncos parted ways with Ward ahead of the 2017 season.


The final piece of the "No-Fly Zone," Stewart signed with the Broncos ahead of the 2015 season. And while he didn't earn a Pro Bowl berth alongside Chris Harris Jr. or Aqib Talib that year, he joined the two in Orlando following the 2016 season. Stewart signed a contract extension in 2016, and he played with the Broncos for four total seasons. A big hitter, Stewart took over the strong safety position when Justin Simmons began to start at free safety. Stewart's best game as a Bronco likely came in 2016 against the Saints, when he became the first Bronco since Deltha O'Neal (2001) to record three takeaways in a game.


In five-and-a-half seasons in Denver, Sanders made his mark as one of the franchise's best receivers. First with Peyton Manning and then with a slew of other quarterbacks, Sanders tallied 404 catches for 5,361 yards and 28 touchdowns during his Denver career. The speedy receiver ranks 10th in franchise history in receiving yards and seventh in receptions. A two-time Pro Bowler in Denver, Sanders was always a dangerous threat to defenses until the Broncos traded him to San Francisco during the 2019 season.


If there's a defensive version of Peyton Manning, it may well be DeMarcus Ware. And when the Broncos signed the seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro in free agency in 2014, it signified that the team was all in to get back to the Super Bowl — and this time earn a Lombardi Trophy. Ware started his career in Denver with a 10-sack season and Pro Bowl nod in 2014, and though he dealt with injuries in 2015, he was a critical piece of Denver's run to the Super Bowl. Ware recovered a crucial fumble against the Steelers in the divisional round, and he tallied two sacks in the Super Bowl to help secure a win. The emotional leader of the locker room, Ware played three seasons in Denver before retiring after the 2016 season.


During Elway's 2014 free-agent bonanza, Talib was the first player to join the 2013 AFC Champions. Talib joined the Broncos from New England, and he made an immediate impact. In four seasons in Denver, he racked up four Pro Bowl selections and a first-team All-Pro nod in 2016. Again and again, he made the big plays the Broncos needed. He had at least one interception for a touchdown in each of his four years in Denver, tallying six during his time with the Broncos. And there's no denying the impact Talib's personality had on the team, as his fiery spirit set the tone for Denver's defense. Though he played for just four years in Denver, it's not a stretch to say he could someday receive Ring of Fame consideration.


It's obvious, but we'll explain anyway. When Manning chose the Broncos in 2012 following a 13-year career with the Colts, expectations were high for what the team could accomplish with him under center. In just about every fashion, Manning exceeded those expectations. During four seasons in Denver, Manning led the Broncos to a pair of Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl 50 win. From an individual standpoint, Manning was a two-time first-team All-Pro, was named the 2013 NFL MVP, the 2012 NFL Comeback Player of the Year and a three-time Pro Bowler. He also set the single-season passing touchdown mark in 2013 and broke Brett Favre's all-time touchdown record in 2014. The all-time passing yardage mark fell a year later in 2015.

Honorable mentions: TE Owen Daniels, WR Wes Welker, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, TE Jacob Tamme, DL Domata Peko Sr.,

Note: These rankings reflect the opinion of the author, not the organization.

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