NDIANAPOLIS -- As he evaluates returning players, potential free agents and draft prospects, new Head Coach Vic Fangio knows that he has a team "in transition." But that doesn't mean his Broncos can't be in win-now mode.
That starts with filling needs -- but not sacrificing draft picks in 2020, 2021 and beyond to do so.
"We just don't want to do anything to jeopardize the immediate future of the team," he said. "You can be in a win-now mode without giving up future assets that are going to tie you up in two, three or four years."
Upgrades are needed throughout the roster, to the point where Fangio believes the Broncos can select the best player available at their draft spot and fill a need.
“I think we’ve got enough needs on both sides of the ball that I don’t think we need to be drafting for need or considering that right now," he said. "So, overall, I think the draft will play itself out with the best player available."
Then it becomes a matter of finding that best player.
For Fangio, it starts with an open-minded approach. From 1984 through 1997, Fangio coached one of the league's best linebackers, Sam Mills, first as a linebackers coach with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars and New Orleans Saints, then as Carolina's defensive coordinator.
One of Fangio's first moves after joining the Panthers was to help get Mills to Carolina, where he became a franchise linchpin whose legacy lingers to this day. But Mills had to take a rugged path to the NFL; he didn't make his NFL regular-season debut until nearly six years after his final college game at Montclair State.
Why did Mills have to take detours through the CFL and USFL? Because he was 5-foot-9 and didn't fit the NFL mold. But he hit like a train and used his intelligence and leadership to play one step ahead of everyone else on the field.
To this day, Mills is an example of why measurables cannot be the be-all, end-all of evaluation.
"You can't go around looking for the next Sam Mills, because you won't find them very often. But when one comes around, you can't be closed-minded and not take a look at him," Fangio said. "Sam was a highly, highly talented player who just happened to be short. But he had overachiever qualities, and he was very talented. Sam had five or six plays a year where his height was a detriment. So over 16 games, we can live with the rest of it."
This isn't just true at inside linebacker. It matters on offense, as well -- including at quarterback.
"I think it's been proven over time -- going all the way back to Fran Tarkenton," Fangio said. "When I first went up against Russell Wilson his rookie year [in 2012], Fran Tarkenton was one of the first guys I thought of when I was watching the tape. I thought Russell Wilson, from the first time I saw him, was going to be a hell of a quarterback, and he is. Drew Brees, you can go on and on.
"They come in all shapes and forms and if you pigeonhole yourself to certain stereotypes or certain qualifications, a lot of good players will pass you by."
At cornerback, for example, the Broncos need quality and depth -- especially with most snaps coming with at least three cornerbacks on the field, something Fangio acknowledged. But he knows the team can't limit itself to one template of player.
"Corners come in all shapes and sizes," he said. "I think if you only want to draft or acquire certain types of players, there just aren't enough of them. You'd better just take any corner you can get that can play the game and cover regardless of size, speed, etc."
Coverage is part of what Fangio needs at inside linebacker, as well.
"The inside linebacker position has changed," he said. "There's three wide receivers on the field more and more than there used to be. The game is played out in space more than it used to be, and the inside linebacker position has become a position with a lot more physical demands on it.
"You need to find guys that can run and play athletic in the open field, cover some backs and tight ends, cover ground. The ILB position has become a much more demanding position, where the talent level has gone up."
But at all positions -- on offense or defense -- Fangio is looking not only for the types of players with whom he can win, but those that he would rather not game-plan against.
"You definitely look at things through that lens, no matter what position they're playing," Fangio said. "That's kind of the way I look at it -- would this guy make me nervous having to go against him, or not?"
Now it's a matter of finding the players to build the kind of roster that will instill the type of fear from opponents that the Broncos teams from 2012-15 did.
"I think the Broncos are a team that has been in transition from when they won the Super Bowl in '15 to the stage where they're at now," Fangio said. "We just need to get it back to the tradition of playing much better."