ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – John Elway’s free agency bonanza included $109.5 million worth of contracts for a trio of defensive stars in Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware.

So it was easy to overlook the one-year, no-bonus $570,000 deal that nose tackle Marvin Austin signed with the Denver Broncos this spring.

Not anymore.

The former second round pick of the New York Giants whose career has been bogged down by injuries made the Broncos’ 53-man roster after a strong training camp six months after back surgery.

Austin’s re-emergence led Elway to release nine-year veteran Kevin Vickerson, who carried a $2.266 million cap figure.

He’ll team with Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Mitch Unrein to give Denver a formidable run-stuffing presence to go along with the pass-rushing prowess of Von Miller and, Ware as the Broncos try to get back to the Super Bowl.

“Well, he’s healthy and I think that’s the key thing,” Elway said. “He had the back surgery this offseason. He’s a guy that we were high on when he was coming out of college and then the Giants ended up taking him in the second round and then he hasn’t been healthy. We think he’s going to just continue to get better. So he’s been a pleasant surprise coming back the way he has.”

What isn’t a surprise is how Elway and his pro personnel department found another gem in the NFL’s bargain bin.
They’ve made a habit of getting quality return on one-year deals for veterans to fill roster gaps since Elway’s arrival in the front office in 2011.

Austin thought his career was over when he was told he needed back surgery last year, when he was cut by the Giants, Dolphins and Cowboys in a three-month span. Instead, it gave him a chance to revitalize his checkered career.

“Oh, my spine works now,” Austin said. “It feels great. I’ve been humbled throughout my career, so I know what type of opportunity I have. So, I’m just grateful to be here. I’m grateful to be able to say that I can still play football and especially at the NFL level.”

Austin (6-foot-2 and 319 pounds) said this is as good as he’s ever felt, and the Broncos believe he looks better than ever, too.

“He was a good acquisition,” coach John Fox said. “I think John and his staff did a good job in that evaluation process. He has come off of a fairly significant injury and he looks like he’s got that explosiveness and quickness he had when he came out of Chapel Hill.”

Funny that Fox should say that because Austin said, “I feel like college again.”

He was a second-round draft choice of the Giants in 2011 but he missed his rookie season with a torn chest muscle. He played in eight games in 2012 while dealing with a bad back that resulted in a weak right leg. And he played in a total of three games last season for Miami and Dallas. The Cowboys released him after just one game and one tackle when his bad back acted up in practice.

Then came back surgery.

“I feel 10 million times better now,” he said.

Last year, the Broncos got plenty out of veteran players who came to Denver on the cheap with something to prove.

Pass-rusher Shaun Phillips led the team in sacks with 10 and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie started 13 games and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. (Rodgers-Cromartie signed a two-year deal but it was essentially a one-year contract because the second year voided five days after the Super Bowl).

The Broncos really relied upon one-year players in 2012: defensive tackle Justin Bannon, linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen, safety Jim Leonhard and slot receiver Brandon Stokley all played significant roles in Denver’s 13-3 regular season.

Of that group, only Leonhard received a bonus, and it was a relatively paltry $65,000.

Elway was determined to add an edge to his defense and Austin’s worked his way into being a big part of that culture change.

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By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer

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