In pondering the incredible 2012 season that the Denver Broncos receivers had under the direction of Peyton Manning, it is a good time to take a look back at some of the greatest receivers in team history.
Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker together accumulated 179 catches for 2,498 yards, 23 touchdowns and a whopping 779 yards after catch. This puts them in the talk of best Broncos performances ever by a receiver tandem in a single season.
Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen added another 138 catches for 1,455 yards and 12 touchdowns, and with the addition of Wes Welker this offseason it is natural to think these numbers will be surpassed in 2013.
When looking at the greatest of all time in a Broncos uniform, each one of the following receivers have stood out as some of the best in the league for the years they played.
This list is not accumulated from merely statistics, but from a viewpoint of success at the time and also importance to the Broncos postseason advances. While, for the most part, John Elway had a hand in most of these receivers, there are a couple that had their best years without him.
The following receivers will forever be part of Broncos lore and numbers three through ten can be put in any order. In their own right, these players have helped mold the Broncos into a high-powered offense that stretched the field and allowed chains to be moved towards their opponents end zone.
Hopefully we will be talking about Thomas and Decker on this list when all is said and done. So without further dialogue, here are my top ten greatest receivers in Broncos history and a couple honorable mentions to get you started:
Ricky Nattiel played only six years and his stats are paltry compared to his counterparts on this list.
He was a first round draft pick (27th) in 1987 but never quite lived up to his ability and hype. Accumulating only 121 receptions for 1,972 yards and eight TDs will never put him on top of any list.
The reason he is on as an honorable mention is clear though: He belongs to a titled group in franchise lore.
Nattiel is the third player of the famed "Three Amigos" receiving corps that was imperative to the Broncos playoff runs in the '80s. He was the decoy as Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson received not only more of the throws from John Elway but the recognition as well.
If Brandon Marshall was not such a head case, alienating the front office and even some teammates, he could have been the leader of every Broncos receiving record in team history.
Easily at 6'4", 230 pounds, Marshall is a physical specimen that has put together six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
As a Bronco, he amassed 327 receptions for 4,019 yards and 25 TDs. Marshall is added on this list not because of those stats—and certainly not because the Broncos went to the playoffs with him (they didn't).
No, Marshall makes the cut because in four years, he produced as good or better than any receiver in team history in that span of time. Clearly, the talented receiver was on pace to shatter the Broncos record books, which would have made the following list a bit different in the years to come.
The reason that Lionel Taylor is not higher on this list is not because of his stats. He had those to the tune of 543 catches for 6,872 yards and 44 TDs while never having a top-flight quarterback such as Elway.
He played from 1960-66 and was a true professional after coming to the Broncos from the Chicago Bears. Playing in the old AFL, though, has left him long forgotten in the eyes of fans and Hall of Fame voters.
During the '60s, the Broncos were doormats for the rest of the league and that leads to Taylor being tenth on my list. Although his stats were comparable to other Hall of Fame receivers, as I said in the introductory slide, this list is not all about personal achievements.
Taylor was the first receiver in AFL or NFL history to record over 100 receptions in a season and was a three-time Broncos MVP and a four-time AFL All-Star, but in the end, his team never sniffed the playoffs.
Steve Watson was a ho-hum receiver that quietly hauled in passes and was critical to the Broncos advancing to the playoff scene after Elway joined the team.
He was drafted by the Broncos in 1979 and played with them until an injury shortened his career in the strike-shortened season of 1987. He recorded 353 catches for 6,112 yards and 36 TDs but will be most remembered for a pivotal play in overtime against the Cleveland Browns in the 1986-87 AFC Championship game.
The catch Watson made moved the Broncos closer to field-goal range for K Rich Karlis to win the game. The importance of Watson was the mere fact that the win allowed the franchise to be remembered in a single term: "The Drive."
That is how you get on top 10 lists of all time for your team.
Ed McCaffrey was one of the grittiest Broncos receivers that was likened to the Energizer bunny: He took a licking and kept on ticking. He had good hands and was imperative to the two Broncos championships in 1997 and '98.
He played for the Broncos from 1995-2003 but was not the same player after breaking his leg in the 2001 season. In McCaffrey's tenure with the Broncos, he made 462 catches for 6,200 yards and 46 TDs. While Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe get all the accolades for their postseason play, opponents needed to account for "Easy Ed," who played a huge part in an explosive offense.
It is amazing that he was one of the receivers that had his best years when Elway was not with the team, recording consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 1999 and 2000 with Brian Griese and Gus Frerotte tossing the ball.
Mark Jackson was the best Broncos receiver never to record 1,000 yards in a season. While accumulating 276 catches for 4,746 yards and 24 TDs, he was one of the "Three Amigos" that helped lead the Broncos to three Super Bowls.
All he did was catch the touchdown pass from Elway that capped off "The Drive" against the Browns in 1987 which secured his name in Broncos lore. He played seven season with the Broncos and was an integral part of their offense.
If not for the lack of a run game, those Super Bowls might have turned out differently for all involved.
Haven Moses is a Broncos Ring of Fame member that was brought to Denver in a trade with the Buffalo Bills in 1972. He played 10 years for the Broncos garnering 302 catches for 5,450 yards and 44 TDs.
He is most remembered for two catches from QB Craig Morton in the 1978 AFC Championship game that put the Broncos past the Oakland Raiders and into their first Super Bowl. The duo formed the famous M&M connection and Moses has been a constant in the Denver community ever since.
His 18.0 yards per catch average is also the highest of any receiver on this list, and he became an All-Pro while in a Broncos uniform.
Riley Odoms is the second-best tight end in Broncos history, and it is a shame he only played in four games with John Elway.
Odoms recorded 396 catches for 5,755 yards and 41 TDs over a career that spanned from 1972-83. He was a first round pick, going fifth, and was a four-time Pro-Bowler.
He was part of the Broncos first Super Bowl experience and is a forgotten player when viewed with others in the orange and blue. Odoms' catching and blocking ability were solid, and his size made him a hard target to take to the turf.
Rick Upchurch was the original famous No. 80 in a Broncos uniform. He played in the Mile High City between 1975-1983 and was another like Odoms that did not have the opportunity to play much with Elway.
Upchurch did it all for the Broncos: receiving, punt and kick returning, rushing and even attempted a couple of unsuccessful passes. He logged 267 catches for 4,369 yards and 24 TDs in his years with Denver and had electrifying moves as both a return specialist and receiver. You could consider him the original "Slash."
While never recording a 1,000-yard season, his complete package qualifies him for fourth on my list because of his intangibles and being a member of the NFL's All '80s team. Upchurch was also a four-time Pro-Bowler and amassed a whopping 10,081 total yards in his career.
Vance Johnson was the inherent leader of the "Three Amigos" wide receiving corps in the '80s with Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel being the other two. All he was responsible for was 415 catches for 5,695 yards and 37 TDs, while appearing in three Super Bowls.
Johnson was a smaller receiver at 5'11" and had problems staying on the field, only appearing in 16 games four times during the course of his career. In that time, however, it was a no-brainer as far as who was Elway's primary target.
While he only recorded one 1,000-yard season, he had good hands and was speedy on the outside. He will forever be ingrained as one of the most memorable receivers for the Broncos due to his play on the field as well as controversial occurrences with the media and fans.
Let there be no doubt as to the greatest tight end in Broncos history. Shannon Sharpe played from 1990-99 with the Broncos, then again in 2002-03 after a contract dispute led to him playing two years with the Baltimore Ravens. He is second all-time in yards (8,439) and TDs (55) and was also one of the greatest to ever play the position.
Sharpe is a Hall of Fame player that was known for lining up at both the tight end and receiver positions, becoming the NFL's first superior hybrid, which players like Rob Gronkowski emulate today.
The Broncos played with attitude in the mid '90s, and Sharpe was as much a key as Elway, Terrell Davis or any other Bronco in taking the team to the promised land back to back in '97 and '98. His trash-talking style was backed up by exceptional play on the field, and his confidence spread like fire throughout the team.
There is no question as to who is the Broncos all-time greatest receiver. If anyone were to pick someone other than Rod Smith, they would need a serious gut check.
Forget his stats for a moment, which rank him 25th in yards on the NFL all-time list and first in every category in Broncos history.
Smith was an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Southern State and played each of his 13 years in Denver. He was the best receiver on the team and worked harder than anyone to prove every scout, coach and organization wrong when he was neglected in the draft.
But even more amazing is the fact that he had five 1,000-yard seasons without Elway. Smith caught balls from quarterbacks spanning John Elway and Bubby Brister to Brian Griese, Gus Frerotte, Steve Beuerlein, Jake Plummer and eventually Jay Cutler.
He recorded 849 catches for 11,389 yards and 68 TDs while winning two championships and although recently snubbed again for the Hall of Fame, there should be no doubt as to his belonging in Canton.
For now, though, he will have to be happy with being in the Broncos Ring of Fame as the greatest receiver to ever wear the orange and blue.