COMMENTARY | The NFL's free-agent signing period kicks off in 2 short weeks, but before the Denver Broncos cast their line into the pool of cast-off veterans and salary-cap throwbacks, a quick review of the franchise's past free-agent fishing excursions certainly is in order.
After all, there are lessons to be learned from the finds -- and certainly the flops -- of seasons gone by.
That in mind, here are the best and worst Broncos' free-agent signings in the 20 years since unrestricted free agency arrived on the NFL scene.
Signing QB Peyton Manning (2012)
What, were you expecting Gus Frerotte instead?
First, the Broncos had to sell Manning on the organization as part of a league-wide courting process that was the story of the 2012 offseason.
And, no, Manning's first campaign in the Mile High City didn't have the best of endings, but everything else about the quarterback's orange-and-blue debut was storybook quality as he helped guide the Broncos to an league-leading 13 wins, setting single-season franchise records in completions (400), completion percentage (68.6), yards (4,659), TD passes (37) and QB rating (105.8) in the process.
Oh, and Manning also garnered an NFL QB-record 12th Pro Bowl berth, was the league's Comeback Player of the Year and finished second in the NFL league MVP voting.
Not too shabby for a 36-year-old who entered the season coming off four neck surgeries and an 18-month layoff without playing a competitive NFL down, but the best could very well still lie ahead.
Signing WR Ed McCaffrey (1995)
A journeyman who started only four games and averaged 26 receptions over his first four pro seasons with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, McCaffrey turned out to be quite a catch in coach Mike Shanahan's first signing class.
He went on to start 104 regular-season games and nine playoff contests -- including back-to-back Super Bowl wins -- in nine seasons for the Broncos and ranks fourth on the franchise's all-time receptions (462) and receiving yards (6,200) lists and stands third with 46 TD grabs.
Signing QB Jake Plummer (2003)
Between the John Elway years and Manning's arrival, Plummer's run of success in Denver is too easily passed over.
But consider that the former Arizona Cardinal posted a sterling 39-15 record (.722) in 54 starts over four seasons in the Mile High City -- a quarterback win total eclipsed by only Tom Brady and Manning (50 apiece) over that 2003-06 span -- and a 71-47 TD-to-interception ratio while leading the Broncos to the postseason three times, including their lone playoff win from 1999-2010.
S Brian Dawkins (2009), FB Howard Griffith ('97), S John Lynch ('04), G Mark Schlereth (1995), LB Bill Romanowski ('96), DE Neil Smith ('97), DE Alfred Williams ('96)
Signing CB Dale Carter (1999)
This regrettable transaction came in at No. 5 on Sports Illustrated.com's 2011 list of the 20 worst NFL free-agent signings of all-time and deservedly so.
Despite Carter's spotty off-field history, Shanahan was smitten with the cornerback who had been voted to the Pro Bowl four times in the previous seven seasons with the rival Kansas City Chiefs and made him the league's highest-paid defensive back at the time with a 4-year, $28 million deal.
What did the Broncos get in return?
Try a pair of interceptions and no passes defensed in 14 starts in '99 followed by a substance-abuse suspension for the entire 2000 season. Carter never played another down for Denver after that, and the Broncos had to fight to recoup some signing-bonus money from the troubled corner, who went on to suit up for the Vikings, Saints and Ravens.
Signing DT Daryl Gardener (2003)
Along with Plummer, Gardener was the other half of the Broncos' headline-grabbing 1-2 free-agent splash in '03, but the massive defender was a big mess shortly after signing a 7-year, $34.8 million deal, injuring his wrist in a late-night fracas at a Denver-area pancake house prior to training camp and missing the first five games of the season.
He recovered to make two starts but quickly fell out of favor with the coaching staff -- even referring to Shanahan as "that little man upstairs" in an infamous radio interview -- and wound up with a whopping five tackles and three assists in five games. He was released the following offseason - never to play another NFL down - and, once again, the Broncos became entangled in a battle to recoup signing-bonus money from a free agent turned flop.
Not re-signing TE Shannon Sharpe (2000)
Sharpe seemingly was set to be Bronco for life after the former seventh-round pick developed into a seven-time Pro Bowler in his first nine seasons in Denver, but the Broncos' contract offer wasn't to the talented tight end's liking following an injury-shortened '99 season, and he bolted for Baltimore.In his first season there, Sharpe played an integral role in the Ravens' Super Bowl-winning season -- even hauling in a deflected pass and racing 58 yards for a TD to break open a 21-3 wild-card win over the Broncos themselves.
Sharpe, though, was a salary-cap cut by the Ravens after the '01 season, and the Broncos were eager to atone for their mistake by re-signing the tight end, who played out the final two seasons of his Hall of Fame career in the Mile High City.
Signing DE Courtney Brown (2005), RB Travis Henry ('07), DE Jarvis Green ('10), WR Eddie Kennison ('01), not re-signing DT Trevor Pryce ('06).
Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver Broncos and the NFL since early childhood, and can be followed on Twitter @kenpomp.
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