The Broncos and Seahawks have reached North Jersey this winter with different management styles, but in their roster construction, they certainly offer some teachable tools for the Patriots to consider -- so many, in fact, that an adjustment in New England’s team-building approach could mean that the Patriots could be the ones celebrating amidst the confetti at the end of Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, next year.
First, the Broncos: On the surface, Denver is actually fairly similar to the Patriots in terms of how it constructed the roster -- approximately half the players were drafted and developed by the franchise, while one-third were acquired as free agents, and the rest the result of trades and/or waiver-wire pickups. However, perhaps acknowledging the fact that Peyton Manning’s age gave them a smaller window of opportunity than they had in the past, the one major difference that jumps off the page over the last 12 to 18 months is the fact that the Broncos went hard in free agency prior to the 2012 and 2013 seasons, acquiring premier pieces like Wes Welker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Shaun Phillips to bolster the core on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, Manning’s limited window caused them to alter their team-building approach just a bit and be aggressive when it came to acquiring veterans -- of the final four teams left standing, the Broncos had the fewest number of rookies (six) on their 53-man roster. Meanwhile, they had seven players with 10 or more years experience in the league, 14 players age 30 or older and the oldest average age, according to USA Today. (By way of comparison, the Patriots had three players with 10 or more years of experience and seven players 30 years or older. The Niners had six and the Seahawks have just one.)
“With a guy like a Peyton Manning that you know is in the back end of his career and who knows how many more years we’re going to have with him, you’re going to maybe keep a veteran over a young guy,” Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway recently told USA TODAY.
“You’ve got to watch how many times you do that. It’s also bringing in veteran depth rather than young depth, because if you do have an injury, you want to be able to have a guy that’s been there, done that and can help you when you get into big games that has that kind of experience.”
When it comes to the 2013 Broncos, perhaps the best team-building comparison is to the Chiefs of the early 1990s. Kansas City acquired Joe Montana prior to the 1993 season -- it was a talented young team looking to get over the hump, and turning to a veteran quarterback at the end of his career to try and bring home a title made sense. Montana went 17-8 in his two years as a starter with the Chiefs in the regular season, but Kansas City couldn’t get to the Super Bowl. In 1993, the Chiefs made it to the AFC title game, but lost to the Bills. The following year, a 38-year-old Montana led Kansas City to the postseason again, only to see them drop a loss in the wild-card round to the Dolphins. Montana retired after the 1994 season, and the Chiefs haven’t won a postseason game since.
Perhaps the greatest beef Patriots fans have with Bill Belichick’s management style is the fact that New England hasn’t really pushed to take advantage of the fact that the window of opportunity for Tom Brady is closing. A more proactive approach to free agency -- or, at the very least, finding some sort of middle ground between going all in now like the Broncos are doing and thinking about the big picture, which is more in line with their current style -- could be the approach. Only time will tell if the decision to semi-mortgage the future in favor of the present will pay off with a title.
Ultimately, if the Patriots can draw anything from the success of the Broncos, it’s the belief that a thirtysomething quarterback has a finite shelf life. While it’s always important to plan for long-term success and sustained excellence, there’s some validity to the carpe diem approach taken by current Broncos ownership.
As for Seattle, one of the things that the Seahawks did that certainly differentiated themselves from the rest of the field when it came to constructing their team was an interest in larger defensive backs -- since 2010, Seattle has made a conscious effort to try and create a supersized secondary. Known as the “Legion of Boom,” their group runs big and nasty: Led by 6-foot-3, 195-pound cornerback Richard Sherman, they have the ability to play physical man coverage. As a group, the average size of the Seattle defensive backs currently on the 53-man roster is 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, a bigger group that’s closer to a collection of linebackers as opposed to DBs.
Sherman was a fifth-round pick in 2011, while hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor (6-foot-3, 232 pounds) was a fifth-rounder in 2010. Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds), who was recently suspended for PEDs, was a CFL refugee. Cornerback Byron Maxwell is 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds. And safety Earl Thomas (5-foot-10, 202 pounds) has become one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the game, finishing the year with five picks. As a team, the Seahawks ended up with a league-leading 28 interceptions.
“They’re the most dominant force in the NFL,” Seattle tackle Russell Okung said of the Seahawks secondary.
So much of the success of the Seahawks is rooted in good, sound complementary football: The offense is physical (if a bit overly dependent on the run), and Russell Wilson understood at a very early point in his career that success as a young quarterback can be achieved if you trust your offensive skill position players. Meanwhile, the front seven is stout, particularly against the run.
But even if you loathe Sherman and the rest of the Seattle secondary, you have to admit that the group has been dominant over the course of the 2013 season, and Sherman himself authored the signature moment of the 2013 playoffs when he knocked down a late Colin Kaepernick pass for Michael Crabtree and followed that up with the interview that launched a thousand essays.
“You’ve got Kam Chancellor out there, who’s probably the most physical safety in the league,” Sherman said of his fellow DBs. “Earl Thomas is a speed demon. Byron Maxwell makes plays every game. I think all that comes together, all the guys are together a great group.
“For the team, we try to be the spark plug. We’ve tried to be the energy. When a play needs to be made, we try to be the guys to make the play. I think our team accepts and appreciates our role.”
In contrast to Seattle, the Patriots have traditionally favored more undersized defensive backs -- the New England secondary averages 5-foot-11 and 201 pounds -- who are smaller, quicker and shiftier than average DBs. Aqib Talib is one of the longest and leanest defensive backs New England has had in some time -- at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, his size and bulk is matched only by Duron Harmon, who checks in at the same height and weight. (Among the Patriots defensive backs, the only one who might be able to come the closest to approximating the Seattle template is safety Tavon Wilson, who is 6-foot and 215 pounds, but Wilson had more of a special teams presence over the 2013 season than on the defensive side of the ball.)
It remains to be seen if the Patriots would take a page from the Seahawks and go bigger in the secondary this offseason, but how they decide to approach Talib’s free agency could serve as a good indicator as to whether or not they’d be moving more in that direction. Talib’s size, length and attitude could provide the Patriots with a solid blueprint in what to look for in their defensive backs going forward.
Even though the Patriots lost out on a trip to North Jersey this winter, the template is there: take the Broncos aggressive philosophy and mix it with Seattle’s belief that pass defense is just as much about size and attitude as it is technique and footwork. Against a backdrop of an offense helmed by Tom Brady, it could create the sort of championship mix that has eluded the Patriots for the last decade.