Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez helped transform the Broncos offense into the highest-scoring team in the Super Bowl era, and a bevy of defensive signings helped rescue a unit that was hit hard by injuries and illness.
Vasquez, a fifth-year right guard lured from AFC West rival San Diego, earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors after anchoring an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL (20) this season and produced a league-high six games without allowing a quarterback takedown.
Welker, pried away from Tom Brady in New England, caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes despite missing the final month with a concussion, one of a record five Broncos to reach the end zone 10 or more times.
None of the other seven teams still playing has more than one "go-to" player who has double-digit TDs.
Although Welker (two years, $12 million) and Vasquez (four years, $23.5 million) were the cornerstones of the Broncos' free agency haul, Elway, the team's executive vice president, signed a slew of others who also played big roles in helping the Broncos go 13-3 for a second straight season.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($5 million), Terrance Knighton (two years, $4.5 million), Shaun Phillips ($1 million), Quentin Jammer ($1.1 million) and Paris Lenon ($940,000) all turned into big bargains.
They kept a depleted defense functioning through a rash of ailments that claimed starters Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe and also turned captains Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard into backups.
"We brought in good guys and these guys have been effective for us all year," Bailey said. "And I thought T-Knight should have made the Pro Bowl. I thought DRC should have made the Pro Bowl. I mean, that's the type of years they had."
Last month, Elway signed Jeremy Mincey when he was released by Jacksonville and the defensive end has helped the Broncos shore up a run defense that was exposed by running back Ryan Mathews and the Chargers (10-7), whom they'll face again Sunday in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
Elway's philosophy is to build through the draft but to add veterans to fill the gaps but only if they're "guys that will fit in that locker room the right way."
Elway doesn't want anybody who will put individual desires ahead of team goals and spoil the chemistry.
This locker room may be chock-full of superstars but there aren't any super-sized egos or self-centered jerks.
Mincey, who was released by the Jaguars after missing two team meetings and falling out of favor with a front office that gave him a four-year, $20 million contract last year, had to pass muster in Elway's eyes before he was brought on board.
The Broncos reached out to the Jaguars and determined a change of scenery and a reunion with Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who was his head coach when he had his best seasons in Jacksonville, would rejuvenate his career.
"Peyton knew exactly who I was when I walked into the locker room and welcomed me with open arms and said, 'We need a guy like you around,' and I said, 'Appreciate it.' That made me feel really good from a guy like that," Mincey said.
Knighton, who also played with Mincey in Jacksonville, said he's been nothing but a pro's pro since his arrival in Denver.
A trio of the free agents—Phillips, Jammer and Vasquez—were long-time Chargers who will be facing their former team this weekend.
Vasquez signed at the start of free agency and he was the only free agent named All-Pro this season, giving Elway arguably the best free agent signing two years in a row.
Phillips came on board over draft weekend to replace Elvis Dumervil and he led Denver with 10 sacks.
Jammer, a starter for the last decade with the Chargers, started just one game for the Broncos this season, and that was only because Rodgers-Cromartie sent him out in his place in San Diego on Nov. 10, unbeknownst to the coaches.
Jammer is like the other free agents in that he was lured by the chance to play with Manning. Unlike the others, he hasn't seen the field much. But he harbors no regrets.
"I'm trying to win a ring," he said. "I can't be picky."
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