With the start of the league year less than a week away, we’re delving into the backstories of some of the most significant free-agent acquisitions in team history since the advent of modern free agency in 1993. The Broncos have relied heavily on the free agency from the first championship squad in 1997 to the most recent in 2015.
To begin this series, let’s go back to one of those early movements when defensive end Alfred Williams was looking to return to Colorado after years in Cincinnati and San Francisco.
How it happened
In 1995, Mike Shanahan’s first season as head coach of the Denver Broncos, the club ended 8-8 and sought to make significant strides in the summer, particularly on defense. In terms of scores and yards allowed, the team was in the middle of the pack, but it failed to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks and cause turnovers.
“Denver needs a leader, and a sack leader,” Adam Schefter of the Rocky Mountain News remarked before the start of free agency on Feb. 16, 1996.
The emphasis was squarely on pass-rushing defensive ends. The free-agent class looked promising, with six-time Pro Bowler Leslie O’Neal regarded as the most established talent. There were also Chuck Smith and Williams, who were younger but not as consistent as O’Neal as free agency kicked off, the Broncos scheduled meetings with each player.
Williams was open about his desire to join the Broncos. When the former Colorado Buffalo entered the NFL, he expected to be taken by Denver, but he was chosen by Cincinnati instead. Despite having a house near Colorado in Louisville, he clung to his ambition.
“I live here, and playing in Colorado would be a terrific circumstance for me,” Williams said following his visit to The Denver Post’s Jim Armstrong. “In my ideal world, I would be here. I’d sit near the mountains with my binoculars, looking for CU.”
When Shanahan and the Broncos made their selection, they chose Williams, betting on his potential.
“I believe he has a bright future ahead of him,” Shanahan added. “We’ll find out if we were correct. I don’t want to take anything away from Leslie, a fantastic football player. But you have to make decisions, and I’m happy with this one. We got a person that wanted to be here and was willing to go to any length to be here, even if it meant turning down offers that were somewhat more lucrative than the one he received here.”
The outcome and impact
While some questioned Williams’ potential effect, he dismissed it after his debut game, a 1.5-sack effort against the Jets. Two weeks later, Williams had two sacks and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Williams was named the second-greatest free-agent signing of the year by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King a little more than a month into the season, calling him the “best pass rusher this season west of the Bills’ Bruce Smith.”
Williams supplied just what the Broncos needed, assisting the squad to a 13-3 record. Denver finished eighth in the league with 40 sacks, with Williams accounting for 13 of them. He was also a first-team All-Pro pick and made his first Pro Bowl appearance.
The next season, the Broncos signed free agent Neil Smith to bookend a pass-rush combo with Williams. Those were enough to propel the Broncos to their first Super Bowl win. In the divisional round at Kansas City, each defensive end had two sacks as Denver won 14-10 to go to the conference title game and, eventually, Super Bowl XXXII. A year later, they won the Super Bowl again, this time against the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Williams stayed with the Broncos for three more seasons until his NFL career ended. He is still a staple in the Colorado sports scene today, co-hosting KOA Radio’s “The KOA Sports Zoo” weekday show with Dave Logan.