Midweek Musings: Evaluating Elway As Personnel Evaluator

So here we are, the final week of the NFL regular season. We know the Broncos will be heading to the playoffs, the fifth straight year the Broncos have done this, and a win against San Diego will mean the fifth straight AFC West title for the Broncos. It’s been amazing to watch what has happened since John Elway stepped into the Broncos’ front office.

Of course, it hasn’t been a perfect ride and Elway has made his share of mistakes, but what front office person hasn’t done that? Even the best personnel evaluators make mistakes. Just look at the track records of people like Bill Polian, Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells (how is it that so many people named Bill seem to be good at drafting players?), which are filled with mistakes from drafting and free agency, but the majority were very good.

So far, that’s been the case with Elway, too. There are those draft picks and free agents we can debate as to whether they were good or not, with some picks that really belong under “the jury is still out” and some free agents who you could go either way with an assessment.

But there are a few picks and signings which are pretty easy to judge. So as we look back on the franchise that John Elway has built, let’s examine those draft choices and free agents that didn’t work out, and the ones that really did, and see how much he really stacks up as far as being a talent evaluator.

Let’s start with the hands-down bad free agent signings.

Ty Warren, defensive tackle: John Elway gave Warren a two-year deal for $10M in 2011 and Warren suffered an injury during training camp. He agreed to a reduced salary in 2012, played one game but was lost with another injury. It was the first miss Elway made in free agency, in which he gave $2.5M in guaranteed money for a player who played in just one regular season game.

Shelley Smith, offensive guard: This past offseason, Elway signed the former Miami Dolphins guard to a two-year, $5.65M deal. Smith was surpassed during training camp by the likes of Max Garcia and Ben Garland, and when the Broncos brought in Evan Mathis, Smith was all but assured of never taking a snap. Indeed, the Broncos released him midway through the season.

And… well, that’s kind of a short list, honestly. Seems as though Elway has generally been good as far as avoiding free agent busts. But what about the draft? Let’s examine those picks which are easy to call whiffs or trending in the wrong direction.

Montee Ball, running back: There’s no way to sugarcoat this. The Broncos spent a second-round pick on Ball in 2013, who showed some promise as a rookie, but never followed it up in his second season, thanks in part to injuries and struggles with finding holes. He just made the final cut after this past training camp, but was waived the next day when the Broncos acquired two other players off waivers. Ball is a draft-day bust and there’s no other way to word it.

Phillip Blake, offensive guard: Elway spent a fourth-round pick in 2012 on Blake, who spent his rookie season on the practice squad. The hope that Blake would improve in his second season never materialized, as he was a training camp cut and never did land with another NFL team. It’s fair to say Elway failed to produce on a fairly high draft pick for the first time in his front office tenure.

Michael Schofield, offensive tackle: It may be unfair to judge a draft pick before he enters his third season in the NFL, but unfortunately, Schofield hasn’t been trending in the right direction since he entered the lineup. He’s struggled mightily against the likes of Khalil Mack and Carlos Dunlap and hasn’t been that much better against other defenders. If he can’t reverse the trend next season, chalk him up as another draft-day bust.

Again, the list remains pretty short, although it remains to be seen if Cody Latimer can emerge next season (and it’s understandable if some expected more from him) and what the 2015 draft class does in the future, particularly if the likes of Ty Sambrailo and Jeff Heuerman can come back from injury and become contributors.

But let’s line that up against the list of good draft picks. On this list, I’m simply going to name the players who have been hands-down good draft picks by Elway, based on what they have contributed over the past few years. I won’t go into too much detail, because you all know what each of these guys have done.

So here’s the list of good draft picks by Elway, none of which are up for debate.

Von Miller: Duh.
Orlando Franklin: Getting four years of good work as a starter is what you want from a second-round pick.
Julius Thomas: It takes Day Three picks some time to blossom and Thomas paid off with two quality seasons.
Virgil Green: Proved to be a good depth and special teams player.
Derek Wolfe: He’s only gotten better with each season.
Brock Osweiler: Looks like the Broncos may have found their quarterback of the future.
Malik Jackson: A starting defensive end that can play just about any scheme. Now that’s what you call great value in the fifth round.
Danny Trevathan: What, you found a starting inside linebacker in the sixth round and one of the best tacklers and coverage men in the game? That’s what you call a draft-day steal.
Sylvester Williams: While not dominant, he has gotten better as a run defender each season.
Bradley Roby: While he’s been inconsistent, he has improved from his rookie season and has his fair share of good plays. Unlike Schofield, he’s trending in the right direction.
Matt Paradis: He started the season slowly, but is settling in nicely as the starting center. If that trend continues, he’ll be a draft-day steal.

OK, so the list has just one 2013 draft pick who would be considered “good and not up for debate” so it’s fair to say the 2013 draft hasn’t paid dividends (although it’s not like Kayvon Webster was a bust, but some might argue he’s not that good of a pick). But the 2011 draft class was strong overall and the 2012 draft class has produced results, too. And if Cody Latimer can break out next year and Corey Nelson continues to be a good depth player, the 2014 draft class will look better than it does now.

But what about free agency? Here, I’m going to just focus on the value free agents that Elway has brought on board, because this is where you really win free agency.

Willis McGahee: A four-year, $9.5M deal with $3M guaranteed led to McGahee giving two quality seasons and giving the Broncos a running game they needed at the time.
Mike Adams: Two years, $4M, and those two years gave the Broncos a good starting safety.
Louis Vasquez: Remember when everyone thought that Andy Levitre was the prize of the 2013 offensive guard market? Turns out it was actually Vasquez, who signed for four years at $23M with $10M guaranteed and was very good in his first year. Line shuffling meant Vasquez wasn’t quite as good in 2014, but he’s given the Broncos stability at the right guard position.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: One year for $5M and DRC did well for himself during his one season with the Broncos. That’s all you can ask for.
Terrance Knighton: The free agency steal of 2013, Knighton was a terrific defensive tackle in his two season with the Broncos, and that came at two years for $4M.
Emmanuel Sanders: He almost signed with Kansas City, but chose to play for the Broncos instead. How lucky we were that he signed a three-year, $15M contract with $6M guaranteed, as he has been a bargain No. 2 wide receiver for two seasons. It’s hard to imagine he won’t pay dividends next season, too.
Darian Stewart: How did Elway manage to get this guy for two years at $2.75M and watch him develop into one of the best safeties in the game? If Stewart keeps playing well next season, he’ll be Elway’s best value free agent signing of all time.
Evan Mathis: Before the season started, Mathis chose to play for the Broncos on a one-year deal worth up to $3M. He gave the Broncos peace of mind at the left guard position and gave them time to develop Max Garcia.

Of course, you can add in those free agents who came at higher price tags but have played well for most of their time with the Broncos. You know who these guys are: Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. Manning’s final season certainly wasn’t what Broncos fans expected, but it’s hard to argue with what he did most of his first three seasons. And the other three have become key parts of the best defense in the NFL this season.

Oh, and you can throw in a couple of UDFAs (Chris Harris and Shaquil Barrett) and waiver claims from other teams (Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis).

Does Elway belong among the all-time greats in personnel evaluation? Not yet. Give it another five years before anyone starts putting him among the best of all time. But he’s had a good track record thus far, and if some of these 2015 picks can develop into good contributors (a good sign is Shane Ray and Max Garcia are trending in the right direction), he can find more hits in next year’s draft and he can keep finding value in free agency, he will certainly improve his case.

Overall, I would call Elway very good at his job, in which he has made plenty of great decisions (Miller, Franklin, Wolfe, Jackson, Trevathan, arguably JT, and most of those value free agent signings). Time will tell if he can keep trending in a positive direction and if he can become more than just one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.