The Denver Broncos All-Time Team
This is my third go at compiling an all-time team, and, for the third time, I've chosen an original AFL team. The eight original AFL franchises will be celebrating their 50th season in 2009, so perhaps 50 years provides the ideal amount of history for putting together an all-time squad?
Let's face it, teams like the Packers, Giants, and Bears have long, rich histories, with multiple Hall of Famers and All-Pro performers. Leaving a few players from each of these teams off of the list would be inevitable.
On the other hand, teams like the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and Ravens do not have enough history to compose an adequate team. Thus, mediocre players would have to be included just to fill the roster.
The Broncos proved to be a tough study compared to the seven other original AFL squads. My first two "all-time team" efforts, the Chargers and Jets, had enough great players during their first decade to nearly fill their starting rosters.
The Broncos, however, were a pretty terrible franchise during their first 15 years. I only saw fit to include a handful of players who played all or a majority of their careers prior to 1974. They seem to have compressed most of their talent into the last 35 years of their existence, which made the selection process rather difficult.
As with any team, some choices were painfully easy: Elway, Terrell Davis, Floyd Little, Gradishar, etc... Others proved to be quite a chore. Like defensive linemen, for instance: Does Rich Jackson's short but brilliant career earn him a starting spot over the long-serving but unspectacular Barney Chavous? Was Greg Kragen a better nose tackle than Rubin Carter? What about defensive backs? Does Steve Foley's team record of 44 interceptions earn him a starting spot? And, if so, where? He played both corner and safety, but then again so did Billy Thompson, Mike Harden, and Tyrone Braxton...
Enough said. I've made my picks, now it's up to you to judge them. Please feel free to leave comments...
John Elway (1983-98)
An easier choice has never been made. After a shaky start to his career, Elway became an elite quarterback with his performance in the 1986 AFC Championship game against the Browns known as "The Drive." Over his career, he passed for 51,475 yards and 300 TDs, earning nine Pro Bowl invitations. He guided the Broncos to five Super Bowls and appropriately capped his brilliant career by winning the big game in each of his final two seasons. A clutch scrambler, Elway accumulated 3,407 rushing yards and 33 rushing TDs for the Broncos.
Craig Morton (1977-82)
Spent his first 10 years with the Cowboys, mostly backing up Don Meredith and then Roger Staubach. Came to the Broncos after three years starting for the paltry Giants, and promptly led the team to their first Super Bowl. Passed for 10,279 yards and 80 TDs for Denver. Statistically his best year was 1981, his last full season. During that campaign, he passed for 3,195 yards and 21 TDs, but the team missed the playoffs despite winning 10 games.
Jay Cutler (2006-current)
Yes, it's a little early in his career, but the QB position (besides Elway) has not historically been a strong one for the Broncos. That being said, Cutler, like Elway, has improved dramatically during his first three seasons, nearly leading the team to the playoffs in 2008, despite the lack of a steady running attack or a consistent defense. Had a stellar 2008 statistically, throwing 25 TD passes and setting a team record with 4,526 passing yards.
Terrell Davis (1995-2001)
A sixth-round steal in the 1995 draft, Davis had a promising rookie season, rushing for 1,117 yards and making 49 receptions. Over the next three years, he exploded with rushing totals of 1,538 yards ('96), 1,750 yards ('97), and an incredible 2,008 yards ('98). He tore up his knee early in the '99 season and missed the rest of the year. The injury was reaggravated the following season, and he was forced to retire after 2001. Despite his short career, Davis left his mark with team records of 7,607 rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs, three straight Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections ('96-'98), and a Super Bowl MVP award for his outstanding performance against the Packers in SB XXXII.
Floyd Little (1967-75)
Undersized at 5'10", 195lbs., Little was the only offensive weapon (except for maybe WR Al Denson) on some very poor Bronco teams in the late '60s and early '70s. He made five Pro Bowls, earned one All-Pro pick with the Broncos, and was the NFL's leading rusher in 1971 with 1,133 yards. Little's 6,323 career rushing yards were a team record for over 30 years, until broken by Terrell Davis. He also made 215 receptions (11.2 average) and doubled as a kick returner his first few seasons. Little also has two punt return TDs on his ledger.
Otis Armstrong (1973-80)
Took the starting position from Floyd Little in 1974, and responded with an All-Pro performance, gaining 1,407 yards on the ground at a remarkable 5.3 yards per carry. Injuries limited him in '75, but he came back in '76 with 1,008 rushing yards, earning his second Pro Bowl berth. This proved to be Armstrong's last year of real productivity, as recurring neck injuries often kept him out of the lineup. He retired with 4,453 rushing yards (fourth in team history), 131 receptions and 32 total TDs.
Sammy Winder (1982-90)
Not quite fast enough to out-run opponents or powerful enough to run them over, fan-favorite Winder somehow managed to grind out 5,427 rushing yards and catch 197 passes during his career. He quietly led the team in rushing each year from '83 to '87, his best year being the 1984 season, in which he rushed for 1,153 yards and made the first of two Pro Bowls. An unselfish player, Winder spent his last three years blocking for Tony Dorsett ('88) and Bobby Humphrey ('89-'90).
Mike Anderson (2000-03, 2005)
After a four year stint with the Marines, Anderson joined the Broncos as a 27-year-old rookie and gained 1,487 yards rushing with 15 TDs, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He saw limited action over the next three years, and missed all of 2004 due to injury. Anderson returned in 2005 with 1,014 rushing yards and 12 TDs. This was to be his swan-song with the Broncos, as he was released in 2006, and finished his career as a reserve with Baltimore. As a Bronco, Anderson rushed for 3,822 yards and scored 41 TDs.
Clinton Portis (2002-03)
With only two years of service with the Broncos, he does not earn consideration for the top of the list, but his terrific performance in those two years is worth noting: 3,099 rushing yards, 29 rushing TDs, and 71 receptions (two TDs), with a Pro Bowl invitation in '03. Portis was traded to Washington for superstar cornerback Champ Bailey in 2004, and both players have continued their Hall of Fame caliber play in their new locations.
Rod Smith (1995-2006)
The undrafted Smith became a starter in '97, recording the first of six straight 1,000 yard receiving seasons. He logged eight such seasons in his 13-year career, making three Pro Bowls along the way. His career statistics include 849 receptions for 11,389 yards and 68 receiving TDs (all team records). Hopefully, once he's eligible, Smith will earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lionel Taylor (1960-66)
A big receiver for his era (6'2", 215lbs), Taylor was an original Bronco who proved himself to be one of the AFL's most dependable pass catchers. In five of his seven seasons with the team, he led the AFL in pass receptions, and retired as the league's all-time leader in that category. With the Broncos, Taylor amassed 543 receptions for 6,872 yards and 44 TD grabs, garnering three Pro-Bowl selections and four All-Pro nods.
Ed McCaffrey (1995-2003)
Spent his first four years being under used with the Giants and 49ers before coming to Denver, where he found his niche. McCaffrey had his breakout year in '98, catching 64 balls for 1,053 yards, 10 TDs and earning his only trip to the Pro Bowl. From '98-2000, he and Rod Smith were one of the NFL's most reliable and productive WR tandems. McCaffrey finished his Bronco career with 462 catches for 6,200 yards and 46 TDs.
Haven Moses (1972-81)
Came over from Buffalo half-way through the '72 season and continued his reputation as one of the top deep threats in the NFL. In his nine-and-a-half seasons with the Broncos, Moses tallied 302 receptions for 5,450 yards and 44 TDs. Secured his place in Broncos history during the 1977 AFC Championship against Oakland, in which he scorched the Raiders with five catches for 168 yards, including TD grabs of 12 and 74 yards, helping Denver reach its first Super Bowl.
Steve Watson (1979-87)
The lanky (6'4", 195lbs.) Watson came out of nowhere in 1981 and posted one of the best seasons by a WR in team history: 60 receptions, 1,244 yards (20.7 average), a league-leading 13 TDs and a Pro Bowl berth. He remained the Broncos' top receiver over the next four years, and finished with 353 receptions for 6,112 yards (17.3 average) and 36 TDs. One of the great forgotten Broncos.
Vance Johnson (1985-93, '95)
His ego may have gotten in the way at times, but he was still the team's best receiver during the late '80s and early '90s. Never made the Pro Bowl, but amassed 415 receptions for 5,695 yards and 37 TDs. Johnson's best year was 1989, in which he made 76 grabs for 1,095 yards and seven scores.
Al Denson (1964-70)
Good receiver on some lowly Denver squads. Denson recorded 250 receptions for 4,150 yards and 32 TDs for the Broncos. He made two Pro Bowls and led the AFL with 11 TD catches in 1967.
Mark Jackson (1986-92)
Little wideout amassed 276 catches for 4,746 yards and 24 TDs with the Broncos. Jackson was on the receiving end of John Elway's TD pass that culminated "The Drive" in 1986 AFC Championship.
Rick Upchurch (1975-83)
Perhaps the greatest punt return specialist in NFL history, Upchurch spent the latter part of his career catching passes as well. Posted 267 receptions, 4,369 yards and 24 TD catches.
Shannon Sharpe (1990-99, 2002-03)
An exceptional receiver and natural team leader, Sharpe was the NFL's top tight end in the '90s. He made the Pro Bowl an incredible seven consecutive seasons from '92 to '98, earning four All-Pro selections during that span. In his 12 Bronco seasons, Sharpe managed 675 receptions for 8,439 yards and 55 TD catches. Sharpe should be voted into Canton in the near future.
Riley Odoms (1972-83)
One of the better receiving TEs of the '70s, Odoms consistently put up solid numbers in each of his nine years ('73-'81) as a starter. He made four trips to the Pro Bowl and was twice voted All-Pro. Statistically, his best season was 1978, in which he caught 54 balls for 829 yards and six TDs. In all, he made 396 catches, 5,755 yards and 44 scores (including two rushing TDs and one fumble recovery TD).
Tom Nalen (1994-2007)
A year before they acquired Terrell Davis, the Broncos made another mid-round draft steal when they chose Nalen in the seventh round. He became a starter in his second season and held that job as a starter for the next 13 years. For his career, Nalen started 188 of 194 games-played (all six non-starts coming his rookie year), made five Pro Bowls, and was an All-Pro pick following the 2003 season. It remains to be seen if his accomplishments will land him in the Hall of Fame.
Billy Bryan (1977-88)
One of many very good Bronco O-linemen who put in over a decade of formidable play but never achieved Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition. Bryan became the starting center in his second year and started 151 of 153 games during his long career. Received a second-team All-Pro nod in '85, but wasn't even invited to the Pro Bowl.
Gary Zimmerman (1993-97)
Strong, smart player who came to the Broncos after seven excellent seasons with the Vikings and provided leadership and experience. Though he only spent five years with Denver, he managed to make three Pro Bowls ('94-'96) and earn one All-Pro selection ('96). Zimmerman capped his brilliant career with a Super Bowl victory, and he was deservedly elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Ken Lanier (1981-92, '94)
The longest-serving member of Denver's skilled but unheralded offensive line during the '80s, Lanier took over the right tackle position in '82 and missed only one start over the next 11 seasons. Like most of his fellow linemen, he never made All-Pro or received a Pro Bowl invitation, but his long tenure and solid play earn him a top spot on the list.
Dave Studdard (1979-88)
A 1978 ninth-round pick and eventual castoff of the Baltimore Colts, Studdard was picked up by Denver the following year, a move that paid dividends for the Broncos. The sturdy tackle immediately became a starter and didn't miss a game during his first seven seasons. Like many other Bronco O-linemen, he never received post-season recognition, but his solid record of service cannot be denied.
Mike Current (1967-75)
With the possible exception of original Bronco Eldon Danenhauer, Current may be the first noteworthy Denver tackle in team history. He became the starting RT in his second season and started each game through the '74 campaign, earning Pro Bowl honors in '69 and helping Floyd Little to the rushing title in '71. Denver lost him in 1976, when he was chosen by Tampa Bay in the expansion draft.
Matt Lepsis (1998-2007)
A tight end in college, the undrafted Lepsis signed with the Broncos in '98 and played in every game that year, helping the team to its second straight Super Bowl victory. He became the starting right tackle the following season, and held that honor until 2004, when he switched to the left side. A knee injury in 2006 forced him to miss the second half of that season, but he recovered and managed to start every game of 2007. However, feeling that the '06 injury had diminished his ability, Lepsis retired on his own terms following the '07 season. His hometown status (attended Colorado U.) and Cinderella success made him a fan favorite.
Claudie Minor (1974-82)
Became the starting left tackle his rookie year and helped clear the way for Otis Armstrong's NFL leading 1,407 rushing yards. The durable Minor didn't miss a start during his first six seasons, spending the '76 and '77 campaigns at right tackle before moving back to the left side in '78. He retired following the strike-shortened 1982 season, having started 123 out of 125 games played with the Broncos.
Keith Bishop (1980-89)
Extremely strong and tough, Bishop became the starting left guard in '83 and remained there through the close of his career. He's the only member of Denver's steady offensive line of the '80s to make the Pro Bowl, which he did in both '86 and '87. Besides his solid playing resume, Bishop is renowned for his words of encouragement during the '86 AFC Championship Game. As the Broncos huddled up for the start of "The Drive", ninety-eight-and-a-half yards away from Cleveland's end zone with little time on the clock, Bishop calmly muttered to his teammates..."Hey, we got 'em right where we want 'em."
Mark Schlereth (1995-2000)
Joined the Broncos after six admirable years with the Redskins, where he had earned a Super Bowl ring and one Pro Bowl selection. Once in Denver, he teamed with Tom Nalen, Gary Zimmerman and Brian Habib (and later Tony Jones and Dan Neil) to help Terrell Davis become the NFL's premier runner. Schlereth made the Pro Bowl in '98 and helped the Broncos to two Super Bowl wins, but retired following the 2000 season after enduring his 20th knee surgery. 12 seasons, two Pro Bowls, and three Super Bowl rings—not bad for a 10th-round pick who grew up in Alaska.
Paul Howard (1973-86)
Another unsung Denver O-lineman who is probably only remembered by Bronco fans, Howard had a long, honorable career with the team, starting 147 games and playing in 187. He became the starting guard in '75 and stayed there through the end his career, missing only a few games due to injury. His 14 seasons of service are tied for second in Bronco history (with Tom Jackson and Tom Nalen), trailing only Elway and Elam.
Tom Glassic (1976-83)
An intelligent player and fierce competitor, Glassic became a starter his rookie season and manned the left guard position for the next seven years, only missing one starting opportunity during that span (although injuries did keep him out of the lineup on a few occasions). Injuries eventually got the better of him, and he retired after seeing only spot duty during the '83 season, having appeared in 105 games for the Broncos.
Rubin Carter (1975-86).
Considered the NFL's first "true" nose tackle, Carter was the anchor of Denver's "Orange Crush" defense. Stocky (6', 255lbs.) and powerfully built, he used his strength to tie up O-linemen, allowing the Broncos' excellent corps of linebackers to target ball carriers. Defensive ends Barney Chavous, Lyle Alzado, and Rulon Jones all posted impressive sack numbers during their careers, partially due to Carter's unselfish play in the middle. Never a Pro-Bowler, he appeared in 166 games for the Broncos, starting 154.
Trevor Pryce (1997-2005)
Pryce became the starting RDT in his second season, quickly establishing himself as the team's best D-lineman and helping Denver to its second straight Super Bowl victory. He had his greatest season in '99, racking up 13 sacks en route to the first of four straight Pro Bowl berths and an All-Pro selection. He started every game from 2000-03, but injuries ruined his 2004 season. After returning to start every game in 2005, he became a free agent and signed with Baltimore prior to the 2006 campaign. In 121 games with Denver, he registered 64 sacks, over 300 tackles, and returned one of his four fumble recoveries for a TD.
Paul Smith (1968-78)
The first Bronco player to spend at least a decade with the team, Smith started out as a defensive end, but switched to tackle in his third season, which is where he had his greatest success. His career stats with the Broncos include 55 (unofficial) sacks, seven fumble recoveries (one TD return), and two Pro Bowl invitations ('72 and '73). His accomplishments earned him a 1986 induction into the Ring of Fame.
Greg Kragen (1985-93)
After going undrafted in '84, Kragen made the team as a walk-on in '85 and took over the starting nose tackle job near the close of Rubin Carter's career. Kragen proved to be a different type of nose tackle. He possessed adequate strength, but his forte was his quickness and athleticism. This allowed him to shed blockers and make tackles. He twice posted over 100 tackles in a season (including 140 in 1988), a remarkable feat for a NT. In nine seasons with Denver, Kragen started 116 of 136 games, made 22.5 sacks, recovered 12 fumbles (one TD), and recorded over 700 tackles. He was a Pro Bowler following the '89 campaign.
Rich Jackson (1967-72)
One of the great "what if" stories in pro football history, Jackson was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career when severe knee problems forced him into retirement. Nonetheless, during his short stint with the Broncos, "Tombstone" cemented his reputation as the dominant DE of his era and possibly one of the best of all-time. When he couldn't overpower blockers, he intimidated them with his "head-slap" (a legal move at the time) and "halo-spinner" maneuvers. He often drew double-team blocking, allowing Paul Smith and Dave Costa to pressure the QB. In his four-and-a-half seasons as a starter, Jackson made 43 (unofficial) sacks, was voted to the Pro Bowl, and was voted to the All-Pro team three straight times ('68-'70). He was one of four Broncos originally elected to the Ring of Fame in 1984.
Rulon Jones (1980-88)
Built like a lumberjack (6'6", 260lbs.) yet possessed the quickness of a linebacker, Jones was the top pass rusher on Denver's outstanding defensive units of the mid '80s. He became the starting right end in '81 and held that honor through the '87 season. From '84-'86, Jones had his best years, amassing 34 1/2 sacks, earning two Pro Bowl berths ('85 and '86), and an All-Pro nod ('86). For his 129-game career, he registered 73.5 sacks (unofficial), 10 fumble recoveries (one TD), and three safeties.
Barney Chavous (1973-85)
It was a toss-up between Chavous and Rulon Jones for a starting spot, with Jones getting a slight edge because of his postseason accolades. Despite never receiving such honors, Chavous was a valuable member of the Orange Crush defense, performing dutifully against both the pass and the run. In 13 seasons, he saw action in 183 games (a team record at the time of his retirement) with 178 starts, recording 75 sacks (third in team history), and eight fumble recoveries (one TD return).
Lyle Alzado (1971-78)
An intense and emotional player, Alzado became the starting right end during his rookie campaign. He didn't miss a start until he injured his knee in the first game of 1976 season and was forced to sit out for the remainder of the year. He returned to full form in '77 and was a standout performer on Denver's first Super Bowl squad, earning All-Pro status and a Pro Bowl invitation. Alzado had another Pro Bowl year in '78, but it was last season as a Bronco—he was dealt to Cleveland following contract disputes. During his eight seasons with Denver, Alzado posted an unofficial 64.5 QB sacks and made 14 fumble recoveries.
Randy Gradishar (1974-83)
Denver had high hopes when they picked the first-team All-American in the first round of the '74 draft, and Gradishar more than lived up to them. He became the starting middle line backer in his second season, then took over at RILB the following year when the team switched to the 3-4 defense. Over his career, Gradishar was chosen for seven Pro Bowls, and was a two-time All-Pro. His impressive numbers include 20 INTs (three TD returns), 13 fumble recoveries (two TDs), 20.5 unofficial sacks, and, most impressively, 2,049 tackles (unofficial, based on team records). That's an incredible average of over 200 tackles per season (including four 14-game seasons). Gradishar has been on the Hall of Fame ballot multiple times, but has yet to be voted in.
Tom Jackson (1973-86)
The slightly undersized (5'11', 220lbs.) Jackson was a skillful and determined player who was the heart of Denver's "Orange Crush" defense. He made three consecutive Pro Bowls ('77-'79) and was an All-Pro pick following the 1977 Super Bowl season. The well-rounded Jackson amassed 20 INTs (three TD returns), 44 (unofficial) sacks, and eight fumble recoveries, and he annually ranked among the team's tackling leaders. He was voted to the Ring of Fame in 1992.
Karl Mecklenburg (1983-94)
The talented Mecklenburg settled into the starting RILB position in his third year, occasionally seeing spot duty at defensive end. His strength and agility allowed him to maneuver around blockers to pressure the QB or put the wraps on ball carriers. In 180 games with Denver, he accumulated 79 sacks, 14 fumble recoveries (two TD returns), and over 1,100 tackles. His efforts garnered him six Pro Bowl berths, three All-Pro selections, and a 2001 Ring of Fame induction.
Simon Fletcher (1985-95)
It was difficult to leave the team's all-time sack leader (with 97.5) off of the starting list, but Fletcher was not as well-rounded as the players mentioned above. He was far from being one-dimensional though, as his 800+ tackles and 10 career fumble recoveries would indicate. Never made a Pro Bowl, despite being the only player in team history to record double-digit sacks for five consecutive seasons ('89-93). He actually set an NFL record by registering a sack in 10 straight regular season games (between the '92 and '93 seasons).
Al Wilson (1999-2006).
One of the faster linebackers in the game, Wilson used his quickness to both sniff out running plays before they got started and to shut down TEs in passing situations. Sadly, he suffered a neck injury late in the 2006 season and was released the following year due to salary-cap issues. He officially retired prior to the 2008 season, but left his Bronco legacy by earning five Pro Bowl invitations and an All-Pro pick in 2005.
Bob Swenson (1975-83)
Teamed with Gradishar, Tom Jackson, and Joe Rizzo during the late '70s to form one of the better linebacker units in NFL history. Swenson, the LOLB, was on the verge of coming into his own when an injury sidelined him for the entire 1980 season. He returned with a stellar effort in '81, making the Pro Bowl and receiving All-Pro status. Unfortunately, injuries continued to hamper him, and he saw action in only six games during his final two seasons.
John Mobley (1996-2003)
Like Bob Swenson, Mobley's promising career was cut short by recurring injuries. He immediately assumed the starting right linebacker role his rookie year, and made All-Pro the following year, helping Denver to its first Super Bowl win. He missed most of the '99 campaign due to injury, but returned to his starting position the following year. The end came in 2003 when he suffered a midseason spinal-column injury, which eventually forced him into retirement. For his career, he made over 600 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and returned one of his five career INTs for a touchdown.
Jim Ryan (1979-88)
After spending his first three seasons as a backup, Ryan took over the LOLB position in '82 after injuries got the better of Bob Swenson. Ryan did not disappoint, and he remained a starter through the close of his career. He never received postseason honors, as his steady play often went unnoticed amid Denver's star-studded defenses of the '80s. Bronco fans won't soon forget Ryan's key INT during the legendary '86 AFC Championship game.
Bill Romanowski (1996-2001)
Although he wasn't the most respected or well-liked player in the league, Romanowski was a fierce competitor who provided the Broncos with the attitude and intensity that guided them to two Super Bowl championships. In his six seasons, he never missed a game or starting opportunity: compiling 23 sacks, 11 INTs (one TD), and over 400 tackles. He made the Pro Bowl in '96 and '98.
Louis Wright (1975-86)
Awesome shut-down corner who literally took opponents' top receivers out of the game. His blanket coverage allowed fellow defensive backs Billy Thompson, Steve Foley, and Mike Harden to post impressive interception numbers during their careers, and earned him five Pro Bowl invitations and two All-Pro selections. Despite rarely being thrown to, Wright managed 26 INTs (one TD return) and also recovered 11 fumbles (two TD returns).
Billy Thompson (1969-81)
The multi-purpose Thompson spent his first four years at corner before switching to safety. He is included on this list as a corner to secure him a starting position. In his 13 seasons, he picked off 40 passes (three TD returns), recovered 21 fumbles (four TD returns), made three Pro Bowls, and was once an All-Pro. He was also the team's regular punt returner until 1975, when the great Rick Upchurch assumed that duty. Thompson posted a respectable 11.6 yard average on 157 punt returns and 25.1 yards per kickoff return.
Champ Bailey (2004-current)
Super-athlete Bailey was traded for Clinton Portis prior to the 2004 season. Bailey continued his excellent play with the Broncos, making the Pro Bowl each of his first four seasons with the team and earning three All-Pro selections. With Denver, he has made 25 interceptions (including an NFL leading 10 in '06), scored three interception return TDs, and cemented his position as the AFC's most feared cornerback.
Mike Harden (1980-88)
Took over as starting right corner in '83 and held the job for five seasons before spending his last year in Denver at free safety. In his nine Bronco seasons, he tallied 33 INTs (with a team-record four TD returns) and recovered 11 fumbles.
Tyrone Braxton (1987-93, '95-'99)
Another versatile Bronco DB, Braxton spent his first stint with Denver as the starting left corner. He then returned after a year in Miami and assumed the starting strong safety position. His best season was the '96 campaign, in which he led the league with nine INTs and made his only Pro Bowl. For his Bronco career, Braxton made 34 INTs, 10 fumble recoveries, and returned four INTs for scores (a team record he shares with Mike Harden).
Dennis Smith (1981-94)
The hard-hitting Smith became the starting strong safety in his second season and held that honor through '93. He finished his career at free safety. The seven-time Pro-Bowler picked off 30 passes, made 17 fumble recoveries (one TD return), and logged nearly 1,200 tackles during his remarkable career. Smith was elected to the Broncos Ring of Fame in 2001.
Steve Atwater (1989-98)
Perhaps the most vicious-hitting safety of all-time, Atwater started every game he played for the Broncos, and, along with Dennis Smith, formed the most feared safety tandem in the NFL. He was invited to eight Pro Bowls and twice received All-Pro honors. During his Bronco tenure, Atwater amassed 24 INTs (one TD return) and over 1,100 tackles. The image of Atwater stopping the Chiefs' Christian Okoye dead in his tracks during a 1990 airing of Monday Night Football will forever remain the stuff of Bronco legend.
Austin 'Goose' Gonsoulin (1960-66)
The only original Bronco defensive player worth noting. Gonsoulin was the AFL's premier safety during his seven seasons, making five Pro Bowls and earning two All-Pro nods. He totaled 43 picks with the Broncos (two TDs). His AFL leading total of 11 during the league's inaugural season still stands as the Broncos' single-season record.
Steve Foley (1976-86).
Like Billy Thompson, Mike Harden, and Tyrone Braxton, Foley played both corner and safety during his long career. He never achieved Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors, as his steady play was often out-shined by other members of Denver's excellent defensive units of the late '70s and '80s. Nonetheless, his 44 career INTs are still a team record, and he should at least be considered for a spot on the Ring of Fame.
Jason Elam (1993-2007)
An extremely reliable kicker who actually has an outside chance at making the Hall of Fame, Elam has also proven himself one of the better long ball kickers in NFL history. He is far and away Denver's all-time leading scorer with 1,786 points (Jim Turner is second with 742), and he tied an NFL record by booting a 63-yard FG in 1998. In 15 seasons with Denver, he made 424 of 521 FG attempts (81.4%) and was invited to three Pro Bowls.
Tom Rouen (1993-2002)
After going undrafted and being cut by the Giants in '91 and the Rams in '92, Rouen made the Broncos in '93 and was their starting punter for nearly a decade. During his tenure ,he set team records with 641 career punts and 28,146 punting yards (a nifty 43.9 average). He never made the Pro Bowl, despite averaging over 45 yards per punt on four occasions, including a league-best 46.5 average in '99. Rouen never had a punt returned for a TD in his career.
Rick Upchurch (1975-83)
One of the finest punt returners in NFL history, Upchurch set the standard by which all other punt return specialists are measured. He made the first of four Pro Bowls following his second season, during which he averaged a league leading 13.7 yards-per-return and scored four punt-return TDs. He scored eight times on punt returns during his career, and was voted All-Pro on three occasions. His career totals include 248 punt returns for 3,008 yards (a terrific 12.1 average) and 95 kickoff returns for 2,355 yards (24.8 average).
Floyd Little (1967-75)
The Broncos got the most out of their star running back's athletic ability, using him for kick return duty throughout his career. Little returned 81 punts for 893 yards (two TDs) and 104 kickoffs for 2,523 yards (24.3 average). He led the AFL in all-purpose yards each of his first two seasons.