Von Miller and the 10 Best Defensive Players in Denver Broncos History

Travis WakemanCorrespondent IIJune 16, 2012

Von Miller and the 10 Best Defensive Players in Denver Broncos History

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    Von Miller was named Athlete of the Year in the state of Colorado on Friday, an honor he was very deserving of after a stellar rookie season that saw him collect 11.5 quarterback sacks.

    The Broncos are very excited about their young outside linebacker, a player that will no doubt help anchor this defense for many years to come.

    After Miller received this award as a rookie, it brings up a good argument.

    Who are the best Denver Broncos defensive players of all time? Will Miller someday make the list? If he plays for many years like he did last season, there's no doubt.

    However, here is a look at the players who have made their mark as Bronco defenders—be it part of the "Orange Crush" defense or otherwise.

Honorable Mention

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    The following players were all considered for the list, but just missed the top 10:

     

    Tyrone Braxton, Defensive Back

    Braxton spent all but one of his 13 NFL seasons in Denver and made 36 interceptions in that time—four of which he returned for touchdowns.

     

    Barney Chavous, Defensive Lineman

    Chavous played his entire 13-year career with the Broncos after being drafted in the second round out of South Carolina State. His 75 career sacks rank third on the team's all time list.

     

    Rulon Jones, Defensive End

    Another second-round draft pick that played his entire career with the Broncos. In nine seasons, Jones amassed 52.5 sacks but would have 73.5 for his career, since sack totals did become an official statistic until the 1982 season.

     

    Al Wilson, Linebacker

    Wilson was the leader of the Broncos defense for several years at middle linebacker. He had 580 tackles and 21.5 sacks in his career, but he also made the Pro Bowl five times.

     

    Trevor Pryce, Defensive End

    A former first-round pick, Trevor Pryce was a valuable member of the Broncos defense. He had 64 sacks in a Broncos uniform and made the Pro Bowl four consecutive times. He was also named to their 50th anniversary team.

10. Steve Foley, Defensive Back

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    From 1976-86, Foley played both cornerback and safety for the Broncos during the famous "Orange Crush" years, playing in two Super Bowls, the second being his final career game. 

    Some would argue that he wasn't as good as players like Tyrone Braxton, but Foley makes this list for one simple reason: His 44 career interceptions are a Broncos team record.

    He was an All Pro in 1978, and his skills as a ball hawk earn him a spot in the top 10.

    He's now a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame; some consideration should be given to him being a part of the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame.

9. Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin, Safety

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    A member of the original Denver Broncos, Gonsoulin played for the team back in the AFL days, making the AFL All-Star team six times. 

    Gonsoulin holds many records to this day, despite his career ending after the 1967 season.

    His 11 interceptions in the 1960 season is still a Broncos record, and he also had four interceptions in one game that year, tying a mark that still stands today.

    In addition, "Goose" was named to the AFL's all-time second team and he is the AFL's all-time leader in interceptions.

    Gonsoulin was recognized for his great play when he was part of the first class enshrined in the Broncos Ring of Fame.

8. Elvis Dumervil, Defensive End

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    Elvis Dumervil already this high? Yes.

    Dumervil could go down as the best defensive player the Broncos have ever had, having already registered 52.5 sacks in just five seasons, including 17 during the 2009 season.

    Dumervil is still just 28 years old and is a threat to get a sack ever time an opposing quarterback drops back to throw.

    Dumervil's value to the team was made incredibly clear during the 2010 season, which he missed due to an injury sustained in training camp. That year, the Broncos were possibly the worst defense in the entire NFL, getting only 23 sacks as a team—a number Dumervil almost had by himself in 2009.

    Simon Fletcher's team sack record will be broken by this man if he stays healthy. Not bad for a guy who was considered too small to play the position in the NFL.

7. Tom Jackson, Linebacker

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    Tom Jackson was taken in the fourth round out of Louisville in the 1973 NFL draft, and he quickly became a very integral part of the Broncos defense in the 70s and 80s.

    His 20 career sacks and 13 career interceptions helped the Broncos achieve two AFC titles during his tenure, but it was his ability to inspire and motivate teammates that made Jackson the player that he was.

    After being selected to three Pro Bowls and being named All-Pro four times, Jackson became the 14th player added to the team's Ring of Fame.

    He does a pretty darn good job as a football analyst, too.

6. Champ Bailey, Cornerback

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    When the Broncos traded running back Clinton Portis to obtain Champ Bailey, there were many fans that didn't like the move.

    I, for one, loved it.

    Champ Bailey has played eight seasons in a Denver uniform, and he has made the Pro Bowl in each one of them. His 11 Pro Bowl appearances is an NFL record for the cornerback position.

    He has 32 of his 50 career interceptions in Denver and still regularly lines up against the opposition's number-one wide receiver.

    Bailey may have lost a step over the course of his now 13-year career, but he still many great plays left in him.

    Bailey will go down as one of the premiere defensive backs in NFL history. So, Washington, how is Portis working out for you guys?

5. Dennis Smith, Safety

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    The 15th pick in the 1981 NFL draft, Dennis Smith played 14 solid seasons at safety for the Broncos, establishing himself as one of the game's hardest hitters.

    There weren't too many receivers who liked going over the middle with this guy and his counterpart Steve Atwater in the defensive backfield.

    Smith attained great success over his career with over 1,100 tackles, 30 interceptions and 15 quarterback sacks.

    For many years, he was considered one of the best safeties in the league, and he was rewarded with a selection to the Broncos Ring of Fame in 2001.

    He cracks the top five of this list for the lasting image he left in the minds of all Broncos fans.

4. Simon Fletcher, Defensive End

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    Simon Fletcher is a man who just doesn't get the credit he deserves. He is arguably the best pass rusher in Denver Broncos history.

    His 97.5 career sacks aren't just the best in team history—that number is good for a tie for 31st in league history.

    He also shares an NFL record for having a sack in 10 consecutive games with DeMarcus Ware?

    But do you ever even hear about this guy anymore? 

    A second-round pick out of Houston in 1985, Fletcher spent all of his 11 seasons in Denver, and I have no problem recognizing him as one of the best defensive players they ever had.

3. Karl Mecklenburg, Linebacker

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    From 1983-94, Karl Mecklenburg was a staple of the Denver Broncos defense, playing in 180 games.

    Nicknamed the 'Snow Goose', Mecklenburg's 79.5 sacks are the second most in team history.

    He had over 1,100 tackles in his career, and watching him, it seemed like he was in on almost every play.

    Mecklenburg would go on to play in six Pro Bowls, and three times he was named All-Pro by the Associated Press.

    Since his career ended, Mecklenburg has stayed in the community spotlight, as he is well known for his charity work.

    A 2001 inductee into the team's Ring of Fame, this former 12th-round draft pick put together a very solid NFL career.

2. Randy Gradishar, Linebacker

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    A case could definitely be made for Gradishar to be No. 1 on this list.

    The Broncos drafted him 14th overall in the 1973 NFL draft. That year, he actually finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

    He would spend 10 seasons in Denver where he would personify the "Orange Crush" defense. In his career, Gradishar put up 20.5 quarterback sacks and had 20 interceptions. He is credited with having over 2,000 career tackles.

    Among his accomplishments are seven Pro Bowl appearances and five All-Pro first-team selections. On top of that, he was voted the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 1978.

    Gradishar left an indelible mark on the franchise, and many long time Broncos fans would still say he was the best defensive player they ever watched.

    It's a real wonder why he's not in the NFL Hall of Fame. Hopefully, that call comes someday.

1. Steve Atwater, Safety

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    Physical. Athletic. Versatile. Great.

    Those are just some words that could be used to describe former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, who was the type of player that doesn't seem to come around very often.

    Drafted with the 20th overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, Atwater quickly became one of the team's defensive leaders.

    In 11 NFL seasons, Atwater had nearly 1,200 tackles, 24 interceptions and five fumble recoveries.

    But it was his punishing style of play for which he is most remembered.

    Who can forget the hit he put on Kansas City's Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football. Back then, Okoye, known as the "Nigerian Nightmare", was considered the most powerful runner in the NFL.

    That is, until he ran into Atwater. It was this moment that would help skyrocket Atwater's terrific Denver career.

    Atwater played in eight Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1990s.

    For these reasons, as well as the mark he left on the Broncos organization, Steve Atwater gets the No.1 spot on this list.