DENVER (AP) – The Mastermind must have been off his rocker, or so the thinking went.

Feeling he was only a step away from becoming a Super Bowl contender, Mike Shanahan brought in four linemen from a bad defense in Cleveland in an attempt to close the gap.

The Denver Broncos traded Reuben Droughns for Michael Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban and a fourth-round draft pick for Gerard Warren. They signed talented but injury riddled Courtney Brown as a free agent.

Those were, by and large, the most ridiculed transactions of the entire NFL offseason. But with the Broncos at 8-2 and the new linemen dominating, very few are laughing now.

“I heard it and I read it and I knew it was out there,” said Broncos defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who also came from Cleveland after last season. “But I also expected it. Why would it be any different than what they were going through in Cleveland? And you knew people in Denver were only going to believe in what the team in Cleveland did.”

The critics, however, may not have delved deeply enough into the problems that made Cleveland so bad last season, the worst-ranked run defense in the league. They hadn’t probed into the fact that the Browns actually had one of the stouter defenses in the league over the first few weeks, until injuries hit the offense, which had trouble staying on the field and ended up ranked 28th.

“Once that happened, people weren’t going to throw on us and give us a chance to make a play,” Patterson said. “They were going to pound it. We went from getting 20-something runs a game against us every game to 48 or 50. When those things happen, it makes it difficult for your run stats to stay high.”

Nor had the skeptics gotten to know the four linemen the way Patterson had by coaching them.

“All are quality guys,” he said.

Shanahan watched the tape, talked to Patterson and made his decision.

Maybe the most overlooked aspect of the whole deal was that bringing in the four players was something of a no-brainer – a low-risk proposition with the potential for big rewards.

Droughns, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2004, was expendable for the Broncos because of Tatum Bell and the pending return of Mike Anderson. The fourth-round draft pick wasn’t considered a huge price to pay for Warren. Meanwhile, none of the players commanded big room under Denver’s salary cap, meaning any could be released if things didn’t work out. And for that, the Broncos got three former first-round draft picks and Myers, a seasoned veteran who had proven himself.

“You had to figure there was something more to it,” said veteran defensive lineman Marco Coleman of the problems the players endured.

As this season is showing, there certainly was.

Last week against the Jets, the Broncos recorded their first shutout in eight seasons. They have the league’s second-ranked rushing defense and, helped by an improved pass rush, their pass defense is making plays – eight sacks over the last two games and 12 overall interceptions, matching its total from all 16 games last year.

Shanahan has tried to stay above the fray and has mostly refrained from telling people “I told you so.” Still, he concedes the success the Cleveland guys have enjoyed has been satisfying to watch.

“You try not to get caught up in that. I really tried not to, anyhow,” he said. “But it does make you feel good that these guys have stayed healthy. They’ve played extremely well. I’m happy more for their sake. People are looking at them and saying, “Hey, these guys are football players.”‘

Bringing in the ex-Browns wasn’t the only move Shanahan made.

He used his first three draft picks on cornerbacks and thought the first of the picks, Darrent Williams, would mostly play on special teams. Williams is a starter now and third-round pick Domonique Foxworth is the team’s nickel back. The Broncos brought linebacker Ian Gold back to the team after a year in Tampa. Gold regained his starting spot and plays alongside D.J. Williams and Al Wilson.

They also brought in punter Todd Sauerbrun, a move some thought to be risky because of Sauerbrun’s checkered past. Sauerbrun has helped Denver improve its starting field position by about 3 yards on offense and 5 on defense.

But really, the most publicized moves were the ones everyone scoffed at back in the spring.

The Broncos are laughing now.

“To us, the Cleveland thing is over,” Ekuban said. “We’re Broncos now and we’re doing pretty good, so we don’t really look back at that anymore.”

AP-ES-11-22-05 1707EST

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