Emmanuel Sanders broke open from here to Kansas City.
John Elway was surprised but didn't miss the man he had targeted all along. When contract negotiations with another wide receiver, Brandon LaFell, hit a snag, Broncos general manager Elway glanced toward Sanders, who most recently played for Pittsburgh.
They connected on a three-year, $15 million contract that became official Sunday. It pays out $6 million in 2014 and includes an additional $3 million in escalators. Sanders replaces Eric Decker as Denver's No. 2 receiver, slotting between Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker.
"This is the team that I wanted to go to during free agency," Sanders said. "Somehow, some way, it ended up happening."
The Broncos are nearing the end of their initial free-agent phase. Their four new additions — DeMarcus Ware ($13 million), Aqib Talib ($12 million), T.J. Ward ($7 million) and Sanders ($6 million) — account for $38 million, or 27 percent of the team's estimated $140 million cash payroll in 2014.
If the Broncos can secure former Washington Redskins center Will Montgomery, who visits Dove Valley on Monday, their free-agent spending spree will have its bow.
When the Broncos put together their list of free-agent wide receivers, Sanders was No. 1.
"He can play anywhere," Elway said. "He can play inside, he can be outside. He's explosive. Great separation skills. He can do it all."
Problem was, as the free-agent market opened Tuesday, Sanders' starting point was "Decker money" — $8 million to $9 million per year. Decker was a starting wideout for Denver the previous three years, and his free-agent value exceeded what Denver placed on its "No. 2" pass-catching position.
Decker went to free agency and received a five-year contract from the New York Jets at $7.25 million per year.
The Broncos first secured Ware, Ward and Talib for their defense, then turned to receivers, where Sanders was regrettably filed away as being too expensive. The Broncos began pursuing LaFell, a 6-foot-2, third-round draft pick of John Fox's Carolina Panthers in 2010. LaFell was also negotiating with the New England Patriots. At one point, the Broncos were close in reaching an agreement with LaFell, but as he deliberated, the team checked back with Sanders.
The Broncos were pleased to discover the market had reduced Sanders' price tag to $5 million a year. Other teams also were interested. According to NFL.com, Sanders' agent, Steve Weinberg, was accused of reaching an agreement with the Kansas City Chiefs, then shopping around that agreed-to offer.
Sanders defended his agent Sunday, indicating the Chiefs made it "into a personal matter. ... There was no handshake. There was no kind of agreement in terms of — we were close to a deal, but it wasn't anything official just yet. ... We didn't shop around. Teams were still calling."
The AFC West rivalry between the Broncos and Chiefs just got testier — as did the Broncos' conference rivalry with the Patriots, who wound up signing LaFell to a three-year, $11 deal.
Sanders, who turns 27 on Monday, is coming off a career-best 67 catches, 740 yards and six touchdowns last season. Still, those statistics are modest next to the receiver he replaced. Decker's 172 catches, 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in the past two seasons alone are greater than Sanders' four-year career numbers (161 catches, 2,030 yards, 11 touchdowns) with Pittsburgh.
Then again, the Broncos employ more a pass-heavy offensive system with Manning than Pittsburgh does with Ben Roethlisberger.
"To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven," Sanders said. "I know that he's going to make me a better player, whether it's mentally or physically. I know I'm in a great environment."
Mike Klis: email@example.com or twitter.com/mikeklis