NFL free agency is a time for change. A period in which fans hope their favorite team adds the correct talent in order to compete for a championship. Suddenly, fans of the Denver Broncos should be concerned with locker room leadership, rather than the team getting the best players on the gridiron.
Over the last couple of seasons, the Broncos may have not been the most talented team in the league. With that said, Denver did have some of the best leadership in the NFL. The thing that stands out to me through the first week plus of free agency this year, is that the Broncos have really lost the bulk of great leadership they have had over the last few seasons.
Non-leaders are replaceable on NFL rosters, even if it takes a few years to find an adequate replacement. Denver missed Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan on the field last season; however, did not necessarily miss their leadership.
Over the last two seasons the Broncos have lost four major leaders: Peyton Manning and David Bruton following the 2015 season, and DeMarcus Ware and Kayvon Webster. All four were captains and all four were considered the leaders for their respective side of the ball.
You can argue that Manning and Ware were a big reason why the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50. Manning came off the bench during the final regular season game in 2015; and his smarts and leadership helped the Broncos comeback to defeat the San Diego Chargers and clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Additionally, Manning put Denver in good situations offensively in order for the team to get playoff wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.
Although Ware was battling injuries during his final two NFL seasons, you can argue that he did the same for the Broncos on defense. Ware served as a mentor and motivational leader for one of the best defenses in NFL history. After his retirement earlier this week, you could see how much Ware meant to every player in the Denver locker room, especially on defense. Many players including Manning and Von Miller spoke to just how much Ware meant to the team. I do not think it is a coincidence that Miller’s career turned around for the better when Ware came to the Broncos.
The motivational talks Manning and Ware gave to the team prior to Super Bowl 50 have become famous. Although it is known only to the team exactly what was said the night before the game, the talks Manning and Ware gave were extremely motivating and emotional by all acounts. It has been reported that there was not a dry eye in the locker room during those talks.
Bruton and Webster had a similar impact for the Broncos on special teams. Bruton, who served as special teams captain from 2013 through 2015, was the longest-tenured Bronco on the Super Bowl 50 team, and he molded Webster in his likeness before leaving for Washington last offseason. Webster has been respected since coming to Denver, and his play on the field spoke for itself. Webster often was the player on punts that made the initial tackle for the Broncos. In fact, when healthy, it was a rarity to see anyone else for Denver tackle the punt returner or down a ball inside the 10-yard line other than Webster. I thought Webster was one of the five best special teams players in the league. The Broncos will now need a different player to step up on special teams in 2017, after Webster signed with the Los Angeles Rams earlier this week.
Four captains and four great on-the-field and locker room leaders are gone. Now, the question is, “Who does Denver now look to for leadership?” A few names that are currently on the roster come to mind.
Miller seems to be an obvious choice. He is Denver’s best player and probably the best defensive player in football. I think enough time has passed since Miller was suspended for the beginning of the 2014 season for substance abuse issues. The organization has forgiven him, with the proof being Miller’s huge contract extension. I would not be surprised to see Miller named a captain in 2017.
Aqib Talib seems to be another choice for leadership. He is the most vocal player on Denver’s defense and his drive for winning is second to very few. The questions surrounding Talib are his off-the-field behavior and poor decision making when it comes to taking personal foul penalties on the field. Other than that, Talib should absolutely be considered a leader for the Broncos. We will see in time if the NFL does decide to suspend Talib for his shooting incident last summer. If the league does not suspend Talib, I would expect the team to consider making Talib a captain.
The last choice is Demaryius Thomas. He is currently the longest-tenured Denver player. Thomas is a good role model off the field and a very good player on it. It just seems that Thomas is not the most vocal or motivating player in the locker room. There have also been times on the field where Thomas looks like he is in a different place. There just does not seem to be another player on the offensive side of the ball that has what it takes to be Denver’s next great leader. Not to mention, he already donned the “C” last season.
Whoever it is, the Broncos must find their next set of leaders moving forward in 2017. It seems leadership could also come from the quarterback position. Perhaps this team really leans on whoever wins the starting job between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch for leadership. Or Denver could bring in Tony Romo. I do not think its the best football decision for this team moving forward; however, it would answer a lot of the leadership questions even if it is just for the short-term. Leadership is a big deal in NFL locker rooms and the Broncos need a trio of players to really step up.