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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos' first free-agent signing led to a monumental trade


With the start of the new NFL calendar year coming up on March 13, that means free agency starts anew, and every team is working on a list of players it may sign.

The NFL had "Plan B" free agency — which allowed teams to retain the rights to 37 players each year — from 1989 through 1992, but full-fledged free agency that allowed players to hit the open market without restriction began in 1993.

Free agency can be a huge boon to the hopes of a team, but sometimes not in the exact ways one imagined.

The Broncos' free-agent signees in that first year were running backs Rod Bernstine and Robert Delpino, guard Brian Habib, tackle Don Maggs and linebacker Dave Wyman.

But do you remember which of them was the first free agent signed by the Broncos — and how he indirectly helped us to our first world championship in Super Bowl XXXII?

The answer is Don Maggs, who had been an excellent left tackle protecting future Hall of Famer Warren Moon in the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot offense.

Denver strongly felt it needed to get a first-class left tackle to protect our own future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, and Maggs was tabbed as the man.

The Broncos succeeded in signing Maggs, but it did not work out anywhere like we expected.

Almost immediately after he signed, Maggs suffered an offseason injury and started just two games in 1993. He would play just 16 games for Denver over the course of 1993 and 1994.

So by the start of the 1993 campaign, the team still had a huge hole at left tackle and our personnel people had significant concerns about how much the injuries would affect Maggs.

However, the Minnesota Vikings had the best left tackle in football in future Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman, who was in the midst of a contract dispute with the team.

Zimmerman was not in camp with the Vikings, and the Broncos were looking for a solution at left tackle.

With the preseason schedule already underway, the Broncos traded for Zimmerman, giving the Vikings' their first- and sixth-round draft choices in 1994 and a second-round pick in 1995.

I vividly remember Zimmerman's arrival and approaching him to meet the Denver press.

The taciturn Zimmerman said, "Let's get this media stuff out of the way."

He was not the most vocal player on the team, but he was a genuinely great player and set an example for everyone.

When Head Coach Wade Phillips was asked if Zimmerman would play in that week's game, despite having had no practice time in training camp, Phillips remarked that not only would Zimmerman play, but he likely would be the second-best player on the field — second only to Elway.

After the game, Phillips was asked how Zimmerman played, and the coach said Zimmerman had indeed been the second-best player on the field.

In fact, Zimmerman is one of a select group of players to have been named to the NFL All-Decade team in two different decades. He was named as the starting left tackle on both the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams.

The Broncos had solved their left tackle situation for the next five years, but had it not been for the injury to Maggs, the team likely would never have pursued Zimmerman.

Those free agents signed by the Broncos during the 1993 offseason all contributed to varying degrees, but only Habib stayed with the team through 1997, helping anchor the offensive line that paved the way for Terrell Davis to be Super Bowl MVP and Denver to beat the Green Bay Packers for that first world title.

None of us can predict who the Broncos will sign this coming week or in following in weeks — nor how they will all work out.

What we do know, however, is that sometimes the results show up in a way that no one expects.

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