In Part One of this series, we introduced our in-depth examination of how this year's NFL Final Four assembled their rosters with a look at the Seahawks and 49ers. Now it's the AFC's turn, as the conference's most familiar faces at quarterback get set for their fourth playoff showdown. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady lead every article about these two squads, and for good reason, but how did the Broncos and Patriots come by 52 other guys that would support their QBs en route to yet another epic clash?
Let's find out.
While the Broncos had enough of a solid core in place to help Tim Tebow to his first and only NFL playoff victory, the engine really started to purr once Peyton hit town. For a closer look at the roster that has run off an NFL-best 26-6 record over the last two regular seasons, check out the chart below. Some notes on color coding:
- The "acquired" box adjacent to each player's name details how they arrived in Denver - draft choices or UDFAs are in purple with the year and round of their selection (lighter purple for draft choices who have received a contract extension since being drafted), free agent signings are in blue with the year that they joined the team, and guys who came in via trade are noted in bronze.
- The "2013 cap figure" box shows how much each player counts towards the 2013 salary cap (figures courtesy of the wizards at OverTheCap.com), and are color-coded to represent the 'bang for the buck' that each player is delivering relative to his cap hit. Green is a relative bargain (a few guys earn a bright green for delivering a ton of excess value), yellow is about league-average, and red indicates a guy who's costing more than he's delivering on the field.
As we did with their NFC compatriots, let's take a look at how the Broncos fared along five key dimensions of successful roster construction. Descriptions of these categories are detailed in Part One, but to be honest they're pretty self-explanatory.
Dominate the draft
The Broncos' recent draft history has been characterized by grabbing true difference-makers when given the opportunity and filling out the roster with solid contributors. Von Miller (R1 2011) and Demaryius Thomas (R1 2010) are the headliners, while Ryan Clady is an upper-tier left tackle who was one of Denver's litany of injuries this year. Derek Wolfe and Eric Decker are impressive Day 2 guys, with late-round finds like Julius Thomas, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan providing a ton of value.
2009 first-rounder Knowshon Moreno has proved to be a late bloomer, and guys like Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin and Robert Ayers are giving Denver at least reasonable value for early-round selections. Outside of former head coach Josh McDaniels' ill-fated fascination with Tebow, the Broncos have endured few major whiffs in the draft.
Some free agent decisions are tough and some are easy - if Peyton Manning is willing to play for you, you pay him whatever he wants and get him on a plane/train/Buick headed in your direction. A $19 million AAV is a lot of money, but there's only one Peyton Manning. And while Manning is one of a kind, Denver has shown a good eye for quality in their other free agent selections. Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez are offensive centerpieces. Shaun Phillips proved a capable and affordable stopgap at defensive end after losing Elvis Dumervil in The Great Fax Fiasco. Terrance Knighton is playing the best ball of his career in the middle of the Denver D-line. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has flashed shutdown stuff at corner, and Mike Adams did a reasonable job of holding down the fort on the back end of an injury-riddled defense.
Win your extensions
The Broncos' front office hasn't locked down as many team-friendly lock-ups as the 49ers, but they managed a couple of good gets on the offensive line. Center Manny Ramirez has been playing quality ball on the cheap following his 2013 extension, and Chris Clark proved to be a lifesaver at left tackle when Ryan Clady went down.
On the pricier side of the ledger, Clady himself is a quality player who's definitely being paid like it, and Chris Clark's sparkling fill-in play throws even more fuel on the "are left tackles over-valued?" fire. Champ Bailey made Denver the unquestioned winners of the ballyhooed 2004 Clinton Portis trade and has more than earned his big money over the years, but the final year is always a dicey proposition for aging defenders. Wesley Woodyard is making medium money as a talented but inconsistent guy, and that inconsistency may see him on his way out of town after this season.
Dodge dead money
Denver's front office hasn't totally dodged the realm of dodgy decisions, resulting in a semi-sticky $11.9 million dead money figure in 2013. Elvis Dumervil's dodgy agent and his inability to locate a Kinko's helped to account for a hefty $4.9 million of that total, along with $2.1 million for former first rounder D.J. Williams (who at least enjoyed a productive career) and $1.4 million for former first round center J.D. Walton, who didn't.
The Broncos haven't done as much bottom feeding as some squads, but they've definitely made some tasty finds. Safety Duke Ihenacho is a big UDFA success story, as is recently-injured corner Chris Harris Jr. Fill-in left tackle Chris Clark was a 2010 waiver find, Mitch Unrein is logging quality snaps at DT and Wesley Woodyard has delivered quite a return on his UDFA investment back in 2008.
Just as the NFC's contenders struck a number of parallels with each other, so do the Pats and Broncos. High-end and high-dollar QBs are big advantages and warrant investment along the offensive line while forcing the need for creative and cost-effective solutions going down the roster. Let's take a closer look at the Patriots' 2013 starters:
Dominate the draft
Any conversation about the Patriots' draft success means hopping in the way-back machine and setting the dial to 2000, where the seeds of the Pats' 12-year run were planted with the selection of Tom Brady in the sixth round. It's a story of good fortune as much as it is of good drafting (if they knew Tom Brady was going to be TOM BRADY, they sure weren't going to chance waiting until the sixth to grab him), but the Patriots' seeing a spark in Brady has provided a tentpole for their historic run of success.
Let's hop in the way-forward machine and take a look at the present day. It's usually too early to make calls rookies, but the first two rounds were very kind to the Pats in the prior four years. Donta Hightower and Chandler Jones (2012), Nate Solder and Shane Vereen (2011) and Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes and Rob Gronkowski (2010) and RT Sebastian Vollmer (2009) are all vital components of the Pats' identity going forward.
They don't have a magic eye, even in the early rounds, as misfires on Tavon Wilson (second round 2012) Ras-I Dowling (second 2011) Jermaine Cunningham (second 2010) Patrick Chung and Ron Brace (2009) will attest. But New England has a sophisticated understanding of the "draft as lottery" concept, and they've been masterful at amassing as many lotto tickets as they can get their hands on. The team made a whopping 24 selections in the first three rounds from 2009-2013, while many non-wheeler-dealer outfits had to content themselves with the standard 15.
Early-round successes have been buttressed by taking calculated chances as the draft goes on - Alfonzo Dennard as a character concern in the seventh in 2012 and Marcus Cannon as a health risk in 2011 look to be paying off in spades. Of course, they've also nabbed a few good old-fashioned late round gems like Julian Edelman in 2009 (seventh) and special teams ace Matt Slater in the fifth in 2008.
With Brady and a few key defenders taking up a big chunk of the cap, the Patriot Way has entailed smart shopping for budget vets that is guided by Bill Belichick's impeccable eye for schematic fit. LeGarrette Blount and Aqib Talib are talented vets with troubled reps who are kicking butt on the cheap in 2013. Rob Ninkovich has become a Mike Vrabel-style Pats posterboy on defense, Danny Amendola has been a valuable if breakable part of the passing game and Will Svitek has proved to be a great find while filling in at RT for the injured Sebastian Vollmer.
Free agent washouts have been rare for the Pats, but they have happened. Receiver has been a tricky fill since the heady days of Randy Moss, and both Brandon Lloyd and Chad Ochocinco failed to live up to expectations.
Win your extensions
The Pats are considerate when opening the purse strings, but they're more than willing to spend to keep their true difference-makers around. Brady is first and foremost in this discussion, as well - his new five -year, $60 million deal is not necessarily cheap for a guy of his ... vintage, but it's well crafted to keep him viable through 2016 even if his play hits a gentle downslope.
The New England front office hasn't necessarily wrangled big team-friendly discounts for centerpiece guys like Logan Mankins ($8.5 million AAV), Vince Wilfork ($8.0 million AAV) and Jerod Mayo ($7.1 million AAV), but those deals are far from outrageous for guys who are vital to what New England does on both sides of the ball. $7 million a season is a bargain for a healthy Gronkowski (though the existence of such a thing is debatable), while guys like Vollmer and Ninkovich are creating plenty of excess value with their deals.
Dodge dead money
The Pats' dead money total is a surprisingly high $16.7 million in 2013. Lloyd ($3.5 million) and Ochocinco ($1.5) weigh things down, along with Jon Fanene ($2.5) and the regrettable Aaron Hernandez. There are also a raft of $100 and $200k charges that are the natural symptom of a team that's frequently churning the bottom half of its roster with bargain vets.
Check Belichick for whiskers - the Pats have made some major finds on the river bottom. C Ryan Wendell and G Dan Connelly, key components of the Pats' always-excellent OL, were UDFA's in 2008. Nickel corner Kyle Arrington was a 2010 waiver guy, while DTs Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are of even more recent vintage as a 2013 waiver claim and UDFA, respectively. Fellow 2013 UDFA Kenbrell Thompkins held down the fort at X receiver for part of the season, while 2010 acquisition Dane Fletcher has been key rotation guy at linebacker.
The bottom line
Just as the Seahawks and Niners parallel each other, so do the AFC's top contenders. A high-priced veteran QB, highly targeted free agent spending and some big dollars on keeping your core guys are hallmarks for both the Broncos and Patriots. Both had some higher dead money totals than you'd think based on their 'model franchise' reps, and both shared one more key characteristic this season - a ton of money stuck in the trainer's room.
The Patriots spent a shocking $27.7 million for guys on injured reserve this season, while the Broncos nearly equaled that total with $24.4 million (not including the seldom-seen Champ Bailey). New England worked without the beating heart of its run defense (Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo) and stud RT Vollmer, while the Broncos had to contend without their star left tackle and superfreak linebacker Von Miller, among others. Those kinds of injuries and dead money dollars would have doomed many teams, but they ended up as further testimony to the fact that the right QB can give you a ton of latitude.
While there are plenty of off-season moves ahead, the Patriots' dead money total falls to $8.5 million in 2014 (almost all of which is Aaron Hernandez) while the Broncos' dead money total drops to a scant $1.2 million. If their franchise QBs keep on humming and the overall rosters enjoy better health, it could be a tall task for anyone in the conference to prevent a return date for New England and Denver in next season's AFC title game.
(One closing shout-out to OverTheCap.com - they have an absolute blizzard of salary and team construction info and are well worth a visit for anyone figuring out what's in store for their favorite team in 2014 and beyond.)