ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Two days, $56 million. Yes, John Elway can handle the checkbook almost as nimbly as he once threw the football.
For the second straight offseason, the Broncos quarterback-turned-front office chief made as big a splash as anyone in NFL free agency. In the span of 48 hours, he added receiver Wes Welker and four more players — all with the single goal of getting Peyton Manning and the Broncos to the Super Bowl as soon as possible.
“I was probably the one pitching to him, trying to make this happen and everything else,” Welker said Thursday about his discussions with Elway.
The subtext: At 31 and entering his 10th year in the league, Welker wants to win Super Bowls more than cash huge checks. He signed a two-year, $12 million contract — relatively modest for the most productive receiver in the league over the past six years.
And anyone who thought Elway would stand pat after a 13-3 season: “They don’t know John Elway,” said former Bronco safety John Lynch.
“I love it,” Lynch said. “They’re in it to win it. I think they’re doing it prudently, too. Welker was a bargain.”
Many players, of course, are more willing to let a few million slide if they can play with a teammate of Manning’s caliber.
Elway’s successful pursuit of the four-time MVP ended up as the story of last offseason. Manning lived up to the hype, throwing for 37 touchdowns and 4,659 yards. But Denver lost to Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs. That, plus the reality that no roster remains the same from year to year in the NFL, put Elway on the clock again this year.
He treated free agency like one of his patented two-minute drills.
“It was quick,” said guard Louis Vasquez, who had a contract with Denver only hours after the signing period began Tuesday. “I didn’t expect it to go as fast as it did.”
Welker, who has 768 career receptions for 8,580 yards and 38 touchdowns, was Denver’s biggest signing. The former New England slot receiver is moving to Denver after his former team, the Patriots, offered him $10 million over the same timeframe.
No umbrage taken, Welker insisted, though he made a point of saying he’ll miss Tom Brady.
“I’d definitely like to thank New England for the six years there, all the trust and everything they put in me,” Welker said. “As free agency kind of went on, I kind of got the feeling that it was time to start looking for other opportunities. Denver, I felt, would be a great fit for me.”
The other Bronco signings this week:
—Vazquez, four years, $23.5 million.
—Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, two years, $4.5 million.
—Linebacker Stewart Bradley, one year, $1.2 million.
—Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one year, $5 million.
Also in their free agent flurry, the Broncos brought back safety David Bruton (three years, $4.5 million) and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (two years, $5 million). Add the franchise tag the Broncos put on tackle Ryan Clady for $9.8 million and the team has spent $65.5 million this offseason.
For many of the free agents, the temptation of winning a Super Bowl, combined with the Elway-Manning connection, was too good to pass up.
“You grow up watching these guys and then you actually have a chance to play for one of the greats and play under one of the top ones, too,” Vasquez said. “It’s like a childhood dream. If somebody would have told me 10 years ago, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a Denver Bronco playing for John Elway and Peyton Manning,’ I would’ve said, ‘You’re out of your mind.'”
Elway’s most delicate task of free agency still remains. The Broncos have asked defensive end Elvis Dumervil to take a cut from the $12 million owed to him this season. If no move is made before the weekend, Denver will likely release him.
That decision will help shape the team’s preparation for the draft.
The Broncos are still in the market for a big running back and possibly a safety, along with more depth on both lines.
Regardless of how the draft pans out, the Broncos and Elway came out of the early stages of free agency looking very much like winners.
“None of it’s easy when you’re dealing with people and the selection of human talent,” coach John Fox said. “I think it’s like anything else — the harder you work at it, the better you usually do.”