ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In John Elway's first three years as executive vice president of football operations, his focus was fortifying the hollow roster he inherited by any means necessary -- which included heavy free-agent investment.
But with homegrown players maturing, the focus has changed in the last two years to keeping as many of those players as the constraints of the salary cap allow.
That defined their moves last year, with WR Demaryius Thomas and CB Chris Harris Jr. retained on long-term contracts, a fifth-year option given to OLB Von Miller and the re-signing of TE Virgil Green.
Friday's re-signing of defensive end Derek Wolfe to a four-year contract offers a strong indication that this will again be the Broncos' primary offseason thrust in the coming months.
"We always like to sign our own people, and obviously Derek, we drafted him in the second round four years ago, and so it's important for us to keep our own," Elway said.
The remaining members of the 2012 draft class have expiring contracts, and after some stops and starts, the maturation of that group of six has become crucial to the Broncos earning the AFC's top seed this season.
Wolfe's contributions are obvious, particularly in the last 10 games of the season, beginning with his AFC Defensive Player of the Week performance in the 29-10 win over Green Bay on Nov. 1. But it's just the tip of the iceberg of what the 2012 class has brought to the Broncos this year.
Second-round QB Brock Osweiler went 5-2 as the starter; third-round RB Ronnie Hillman led the Broncos in rushing; fourth-round defensive back Omar Bolden provided an explosive jolt to kickoff and punt returns; fifth-round DE Malik Jackson had a second consecutive dominant season; sixth-round LB Danny Trevathan led the team in tackles for the second time in three years.
All are unrestricted free agents, along with Miller, a 2011 first-rounder. Three non-drafted 2013 acquisitions -- RB C.J. Anderson, ILB Brandon Marshall and OLB Lerentee McCray -- are restricted free agents.
And there is plenty of value among the team's six exclusive-rights free agents, a group headlined by kicker Brandon McManus, emerging center Matt Paradis and two key backups: ILB Todd Davis and WR Bennie Fowler.
This is the NFL's version of a "first-world problem." Even though the salary cap could rise as much as $10 million, the Broncos will have to make some tough choices on who to retain -- and will have to continue trusting their draft-and-develop system for reinforcements when needed.
Elway has pointed to keeping Miller as a priority, and if no long-term deal can be reached by next month, it will likely take the franchise tag to do it.
But the Broncos have signed all three franchise-tagged players in the Elway era to long-term extensions: Matt Prater (2012), Ryan Clady (2013) and Thomas (2015); even though the process might take months, it would come as no surprise if a deal is eventually struck with their elite edge rusher.
The offseason task list is long. But by agreeing to an extension with Wolfe, Elway got off to a good start by keeping a player in whom patience has provided a handsome reward -- for the player and team alike.
"Derek was the first step, and now we do have several other free agents that we'd like to continue to work with, and hopefully can get him back here in Denver," Elway said.