Since John Elway took over the front office for the Broncos in 2011, he has posted a fairly impressive resume. During his tenure, Denver won five straight division titles, made two Super Bowl appearances, recorded one Super Bowl victory, boasted the greatest offensive team ever and arguably had the greatest defense of all-time. But that was all during his first five years on the job.
Since Super Bowl 50, the Broncos are one of just three world champions to miss the playoffs for three straight seasons. There are plenty of reasons why the Broncos haven’t been back to the playoffs, but the general manager’s missteps since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy are at the top of the list.
Here are Elway’s top five mistakes since he said, “This one’s for Pat.”
5. Cutting T.J. Ward
The release of the safety turned a lot of heads before the 2017 season. The hard-hitting safety signed a four-year deal with the Broncos in 2014 to team up with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders. Ward was a leader for the legendary “No Fly Zone” that included Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Darian Stewart.
Ward didn’t have the superstar numbers that would jump off the stat sheet every week, but the type of player he was in the locker room was perfect. Once Ward was released by the Broncos, you could feel the change in the locker room because players were not happy. Things spiraled for there, culminating with the team trading of Aqib Talib because he couldn’t get along with head coach Vance Joseph and the defense becoming a shell of its former self. The Broncos have yet to find a replacement for the hard hitting safety.
4. Chris Harris Jr.’s Contract
Chris Harris Jr. has emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and in is still considered one of the most underrated corners out there, but he was never getting paid like one. Earlier this week, Harris got a raise on the final year of his current contract. He went from making $8.9 million this season to $12.05 million. The strange thing is that the Broncos didn’t extend the years on his contract.
It makes no sense to anyone that Elway couldn’t extend Harris’ contract for a few more years so that he could retire a Bronco. Year after year, Harris ranks as one of the best slot corners in the NFL and continues to rank in the top five in Pro Football Focus grades. It will go down as the biggest mistake of John Elway’s front office career if he can’t sign the elite corner to a multiyear contract entering the 2020 season.
3. Letting Wade Phillips go
After making the great hire of head coach Gary Kubiak, Elway went ahead and hired one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history in Wade Phillips to round out the staff. In 2014, the Broncos ranked 16th in the NFL in points allowed per game at 22.1 under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. With essentially the same roster the following season, Phillips put together one of the greatest defenses of all-time allowing only 18.5 points per game. Denver also went from allowing 305.2 yards per game to 283.1 yards per game, which ranked first in the NFL.
In 2016, the Broncos remained in the top five in both categories despite having average quarterback play in Trevor Siemian and couple of games from Paxton Lynch. In 2017, Phillips wanted to become the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the NFL, but Elway refused to pay Phillips the money he wanted and replaced him with secondary coach Joe Woods.
The 2017 season was a step back for the Broncos defense, as they went from fourth in points per game allowed to 22nd in the NFL. Joe Woods was then fired after the 2018 season while Wade Phillips’ defense held Tom Brady and the Patriots to just 13 points in the Super Bowl.
2. Unable to Improve the Offensive Line
This has been a consistent issue for the Broncos since 2015 when starting left tackle Ryan Clady tore his ACL during OTAs. Elway also let his own draft pick, Orlando Franklin, walk away in free agency and then realized that the Broncos needed a legit left guard. Elway then made a move to sign Evan Mathis. The Broncos’ offensive line in 2015 consisted of Ryan Harris, who was sitting on his couch waiting for a phone call, Mathis, who was a free agent until he was signed two weeks before the first game of the season, rookie center in Matt Paradis, Pro Bowl right guard Louis Vasquez, and Michael Schofield, who never started a game in the NFL. The only reason that offensive line worked was because of Peyton Manning managing the offense.
In 2016, Paradis would remain at center and Schofield would play right guard, with Max Garcia starting at left guard. Denver would sign Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson to play their tackle positions in which they would struggle. In 2017 John Elway had his choice of the best offensive tackle in the NFL Draft between Ryan Ramczyk, Garett Bolles and Cam Robinson. Elway selected Bolles 20th overall. The left tackle has been called for 22 penalties during the last two seasons, while Ramczyk was selected to second-team All-Pro.
During the last three seasons, the Broncos have given up 126 sacks, which ranks eighth most in the NFL. In 2019, the Broncos downgraded on the offensive line by losing Matt Paradis in free agency after offering only a one year deal before he signed with the Panthers. Denver also overpaid Ja’Wuan James, making him the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history. The issue with James is that according to sources, he doesn’t care that much about football; the Dolphins tried moving on from him for two years, but due to injuries from other players, they were forced to keep him on the roster.
Denver will start rookie Dalton Risner at left guard next to Bolles, Connor McGovern will move from right guard to center and Ron Leary, who is coming off a torn Achilles, will be placed at right guard. If Denver wants to succeed this season, they must protect Joe Flacco if they have any hope of making the playoffs.
1. Drafting Paxton Lynch
It’s really hard to find a franchise quarterback in the NFL, but it’s even harder when you have to replace Manning after a Super Bowl victory. After failing to sign Brock Osweiler to a long-term deal, the Broncos had Trevor Siemian on the roster. John Elway decided to trade up in the first round of the NFL Draft to select Paxton Lynch out of Memphis.
The best way for a quarterback to develop is for him to play. Instead, the Broncos went with Siemian as the starter, choosing to let Lynch sit back and learn. He never did.
If Elway and the Broncos coaching staff had done real research on the gunslinger out of Memphis, they would have known that he was undraftable and would never progress in Gary Kubiak’s offensive system. Not Paxton Lynch put the Broncos back two years because no rookie quarterback has ever led his team to a Super Bowl appearance and only six quarterbacks have taken their teams to a Super Bowl in their second season. Four of those quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl.
In 2018, Elway should have done everything he could have done to draft the quarterback he loved the most because 2019 could be the breakout year for that quarterback. But instead, the Broncos went with Case Keenum and now Flacco.
Until the Broncos draft and develop a quarterback, they will not be contending for a Super Bowl anytime soon. If the Broncos want Drew Lock to be the future, he must start this season instead of Flacco; if he doesn’t, add another two years from when the Broncos could realistically compete for another world championship.
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