ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In one week, John Elway will step onto the practice field and see the team built under his watch begin its defense of a world championship.
He will watch his coaches work with a figure as imposing figuratively as it is literally. He will stand on the sideline with more capital and credibility than any other general manager in the league -- and more success since he took the job in 2011 than anyone else in his position.
With five division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and one world championship in Elway's reign, the Broncos are a smashing success. Only the New England Patriots have the same collection of accomplishments in that span.
But before those last five years, the Patriots were already at cruising altitude, with Tom Brady in his prime and 10 consecutive winning seasons to their name. Bill Belichick's Patriots didn't need to build; they had to maintain.
Elway had a far more daunting task: to rebuild the Broncos and bring them back to the elite -- a place that seemed far out of sight.
He arrived and inherited a hollow roster. There were a handful of valuable contributors and a few young players with potential. There were also backup-caliber players who were starting, and some reserves who might not have been able to make another team.
But there was also the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft -- the highest in Broncos history.
The slot reflected where the Broncos stood: staring up at everyone else in the AFC. But it was a good year to have a high pick; the draft was stacked with elite talent.
Nevertheless, picking Von Miller wasn't the slam dunk it appears to be in retrospect. Denver had Elvis Dumervil set to return after missing the 2010 campaign because of a torn pectoral muscle; edge rusher wasn't perceived as one of the team's most pressing needs. Further, many draft pundits saw Miller as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and not a fit for the 4-3 alignment being installed by John Fox and his defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen.
However, schemes come and go, and ultimately are adapted to the players on hand. The best play is always to take the most talented football player available and then worry about the scheme and lineup fit.
The Broncos had a pressing need for a defensive tackle, and Marcell Dareus, who has become an outstanding player in his own right, was available.
But Elway took the best player available. He selected Miller, and the Broncos have reaped the rewards of the choice ever since. Miller immediatey became one of the league's best edge rushers, with the rest of his game rounding into form over the years with experience and film study.
Miller is more than just a pass rusher. He is the foundation of what Elway has built. It wasn't logical to pick a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick in 2011, not with Cam Newton going one pick earlier to Carolina. There was no one better to take with that premium slot than a man with the ability to dismantle opposing quarterbacks -- most famously Newton himself in Super Bowl 50.
The drafts haven't been perfect. You won't find a general manager in NFL history who doesn't have picks that didn't work out.
But a majority of the projected starting lineup heading into this year's training camp is comprised of players who have never started for any other team. Some, like Miller, were drafted. Others were undrafted prospects like C.J. Anderson and Chris Harris Jr. who were scouting finds and now are on their second contracts. And Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis were deemed expendable early in their careers, but were signed and developed by Elway and his staff.
And Elway's free-agent success rate is astoundingly high. From Willis McGahee, who became a Pro Bowler in 2011 to Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Emmanuel Sanders on the roster of today, one move after another has been the right one.
The roster Elway and his staff have crafted is deep and talented -- enough to endure some bumps that often come with a quarterback transition as the Broncos try to win in the wake of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning's retirement.
Elway often refers to his desire not just to win "now," but "from now on." That's all the Broncos have done since he took over football operations.
Even accounting for the change at quarterback, he has an intact, seasoned core comprised mostly of players developed under his watch. Others are in the pipeline, waiting for opportunities, just like the chances their predecessors had.
Past success doesn't guarantee future wins. But keeping as much of a talented team together as possible in the salary-cap era gives you the best possible shot.
That's what Elway has done through multiple starting quarterbacks and two head coaches, and it's why anyone who underestimates the defending champions and their ability to push for another world title does so at their own peril.