Denver finds pieces for a winning season

By FRANK SCHWAB THE GAZETTE Updated: November 20, 2005 at 12:00 am • Published: November 20, 2005
ENGLEWOOD - The defensive line was decimated, there was no depth at cornerback, more speed was desired at linebacker and if anything was left over after some offseason shopping, maybe the Denver Broncos would add a few pieces on offense.
Through some calculated risks and a few head-scratching moves that were mocked, the Broncos put together the pieces of a team that is 7-2 going into its game against the New York Jets today. The Broncos were in the right place at the right time for a few of their biggest moves. They were planning to use the draft to build a de- fensive line before the Cleveland Browns offered them some underachieving veterans. Denver took chances on those linemen and used the draft to take three promising cornerbacks who have made big impacts. Denver had thought about improving the situation at punter but wasn’t expecting Carolina to offer Todd Sauerbrun at a pretty cheap price. The Broncos made a few mistakes. They drafted running back Maurice Clarett, who was cut before playing in a preseason game. They’re still trying to build offensive line depth. And they didn’t get the veteran backup quarterback they coveted. However, Denver ended up shoring up some of its biggest weaknesses without giving up too much. “I think they were real creative,” safety John Lynch said. “It wasn’t just big free agent acquisitions. We’re a better football team. They had a plan, and I credit them for that.” The first priority in the offseason was finding defensive linemen. Building a defensive line through free agency was going to be difficult because good linemen don’t come cheap. When the Broncos determined before free agency started that end Reggie Hayward would cost too much to keep, that added to the challenge. Hayward got a $10 million signing bonus from Jacksonville. “You can draft it and look at free agency, but drafting is a crapshoot, and free agency can sometimes take you beyond where you want to go,” Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. Sundquist and Phil Savage, who was hired as Cleveland’s general manager in January, knew each other well. They first talked about the Browns’ desire to trade at the Hula Bowl in January. Cleveland had a new coaching staff and was changing from a 4-3 defense with four linemen and three linebackers to a 3-4 with three linemen. Eventually the Broncos had four former Browns linemen: Tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers and end Ebenezer Ekuban were acquired in trades, and end Courtney Brown chose Denver over Washington as a free agent. Myers was a throw-in when the Broncos traded running back Reuben Droughns for Ekuban. The Browns didn’t want to give up a draft pick along with Ekuban, so they offered Myers, who has started every game. Warren and Brown are starters for a much-improved defensive line, and Ekuban is a key reserve. “For what it would have cost to keep a 10-, 11-sack guy on this football team (Hayward), we were able to add four defensive linemen for the same price,” Sundquist said. Once the defensive line was set, Denver had the freedom to draft other positions. The Broncos didn’t desperately need their first-round pick, so they traded it to Washington for a 2005 third-round pick and a first- and fourthround pick in 2006. The Broncos attacked their weaknesses in the secondary. Cornerbacks Darrent Williams, Karl Paymah and Domonique Foxworth were their top three draft picks. Williams is a starter, Foxworth has played a lot and Paymah has contributed. “We didn’t set out to get three, but as you start going through, the need is there and the value is there, so why not stockpile?” Sundquist said. The Broncos hadn’t thought about Sauerbrun before Panthers general manager Marty Hurney asked if they would be interested shortly after the draft. The Broncos got the controversial and talented punter for a seventh-round draft pick as well as punter Jason Baker. Sauerbrun is seventh in the NFL in punting average, has helped Denver’s special teams improve and hasn’t caused any problems. The Broncos added linebacker Ian Gold and tight end Stephen Alexander in free agency, and both players have started all season. Not everything went perfectly for the Broncos. They failed to land freeagent quarterback Jeff Garcia, who went to Detroit, and Denver is vulnerable behind quarterback Jake Plummer because backup Bradlee Van Pelt never has played an NFL regular-season game. The team chose to keep Lenny Walls at cornerback over Kelly Herndon, and Walls struggled. Walls is on injured reserve and will be released once he’s recovered from a groin injury. Jerry Rice wound up retiring before the season started. The Broncos also struck out by drafting Clarett, one of the biggest busts in team history. But the Broncos have 19 new players, and their hits from the offseason have far outweighed the misses. “A lot of work and a lot of thought went into it,” Sundquist said. “The staff worked as hard in the offseason as we ever have.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4891 or fschwab@gazette.com INJURY REPORT NEW YORK JETS (2-7) AT DENVER BRONCOS (7-2) — Jet s: OUT: RB B.J. Askew (hamstring); CB David Barr ett (eye); RB Derrick Blaylo ck (ankle); QB Jay Fiedler (right shoulder); WR Harry Williams (knee) . PROBABLE: G Pete Kendall (back); RB Curtis Martin (knee); LB Kenyatt a Wright (ankle/knee). Broncos: PROBABLE: CB Champ Bailey (hamstring); S Sam Brandon (shoulder); DE Courtney Brown (knee); WR Ashley Lelie (knee); WR Darius Watts (ankle). TODAY N.Y. Jets (2-7) at Denver (7-2), 2:15 p.m., CBS, 740/850 AM
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