The Denver Broncos are on a roll, and their improved defense has Broncos fans reminiscent of some of the franchise greats gone by. Throughout history, the Broncos have produced players who have truly struck fear into the hearts of opponents, some of whom play on this current squad. The following column is dedicated to the 25 Most Intimidating Denver Broncos of all time (with some honorable mentions thrown in). Read and react, and chime in if anyone is missing from this list:
First, the Honorable Mentions: NT Greg Kregan (an underrated, gritty lineman), K Rich Karlis (for kicking barefoot in the Mile High snow), LG Mike Schlareth (“Stink”) and QB Tim Tebow (for his polarizing presence, his legions of followers and his overall will to win).
Now, on to the Top 25:
No. 25: Von Miller (OLB, 2011-present)—Playing in just his first NFL season, Miller is already making heads turn around the league. Opposing offenses are having to scheme for his talents specifically, and even that is not working. Miller is currently fifth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks on the season, and he has also forced three fumbles. His strength and rare athleticism make him a very special player, hopefully for many years to come.
No. 24: Keith Bishop (LG, 1980-1989)—There are few offensive linemen on this list, but Bishop is very deserving. For six years of his nine-year career, his mission was to protect John Elway’s blind side, and he did it very well. Elected to the Pro Bowl in 1986 and 1987, Bishop’s relentless protection of Elway was instrumental in three runs at the Super Bowl.
No. 23: John Lynch (S, 2004-2007)—Lynch’s best years came with Tampa Bay, certainly. However, by the time he arrived in Denver, there was still plenty of gas left in the tank, and he could still do what he always did best—hit! The punishment he doled out while patrolling the middle of the field kept opposing receivers’ heads on swivels, and he was every bit of an intimidating force.
No. 22: Clinton Portis (RB, 2002-2003)—Conversely, Portis excelled with Denver briefly, before shipping out to Washington, where he was misused and run down to ineffectiveness for the rest of his career. However, for two years in Denver he was downright scary, averaging 5.5 yards per carry over that span and putting together back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons. His electric play burned out far too soon, but it was bright while it lasted.
No. 21: Brian Dawkins (S, 2009-present)—Much like Lynch, Dawkins' best years were undoubtedly with Philadelphia, but Dawkins is still an imposing force. Just when the opposition may begin to take his age for granted, Dawkins is more than capable of delivering a punishing blow to an unsuspecting quarterback on a safety blitz.
No. 20: Al Wilson (MLB, 1999-2006)—Patrolling the middle of the field for the first half of a decade, Wilson was a force to be reckoned with. Never a stat-monger, Wilson’s fiery intensity elevated the play of others around him, and it didn’t go unnoticed as he was elected to the Prowl Bowl in five of his seven NFL seasons.
No. 19: Mike Harden (CB, 1980-1988)—Before the term “shut-down corner,” Harden was essentially performing that role for the Denver Broncos for most of the 1980s. He was adept at taking away the opponents’ best receiver, and he helped the Broncos reach two Super Bowls in the process.
No. 18: Brandon Marshall (WR, 2006-2009)—One of the few true No.1 receivers in Broncos’ history, Marshall was simply a beast. A freak athletic specimen, he could out-jump and out muscle opposing defensive backs, despite drawing shut-down corners week after week. Gaining over 1,000 yards receiving in three consecutive seasons (’07-’09), he ultimately left the organization after disputes with Coach Josh McDaniels.
No. 17: Rulon Jones (DE, 1980-1988)—Rulon Jones was a monster. At 6’6”, 260 lbs., Jones was an imposing presence coming off the end. Not only was he particularly punishing on opposing quarterbacks and running backs, but his wing span allowed him to routinely bat balls down at the line.
No. 16: Gary Zimmerman (T, 1993-1997)—Already a Pro Bowler when he arrived from Minnesota, Zimmerman would go on to make three more appearances with Denver. He makes the list, not only as one of four Denver Broncos elected to the Hall of Fame, but also for starting every NFL game he ever played. At 184, that’s quite a feat!
No. 15: Elvis Dumervil (DE/LB, 2006-present)—Whether he lines up at linebacker or defensive end, Dumervil is a game changer. Undersized, he has played with a chip on his shoulder his whole career and refuses to be bullied by bigger (slower) linemen. He led the NFL in sacks in 2009, and even though injuries have hampered him lately, the emergence of Von Miller has him rejuvenated and back to terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
No. 14: Simon Fletcher (LB/DE, 1985-1995)—A hybrid LB/DE before the 3-4 became en vogue, Fletcher was a relentless part of the Broncos pass rush for a decade. He registered double-digit sacks each season from 1987-1993 and was nearly impossible for offensive lines to contain. Fletcher is the career leader in many Denver Broncos defensive categories, including sacks (97.5) and forced fumbles (33).
No. 13: Terrell Davis (RB, 1995-2001)—You want intimidating? How about the Broncos’ most decorated running back of all time. The 1997 Super Bowl MVP, 1998 NFL MVP, a first-team All Pro for three straight seasons (’96-’98) and one of only five men ever to gain 2,000 yards rushing in a single season (’98), Davis was unquestionably the best running back of his time. Even though defenses knew what he was going to do, they were helpless to stop him. Tragically, a freak injury (clipped by a teammate while tackling a defender after an interception) cut his brilliant career short, but even so, he is more than deserving for Hall of Fame consideration.
No. 12: Dennis Smith (S, 1981-1994)—Dennis Smith was widely renowned as the hardest hitter in the NFL. Manning the safety position for over a decade, Smith’s violent hits were more than intimidating for opponents. A six-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All Pro, Smith would play his whole career for Denver and mentor the defender who would one day fill his own shoes as the NFL’s hardest hitter.
No. 11: Lyle Alzado (DL, 1971-1978)—One of the most “notoriously violent” players ever, Alzado was a stalwart on the Denver defensive line throughout the early 1970s. He anchored the Orange Crush Defense and led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl berth in 1977, earning first-team All Pro in the process. Alzado, who later admitting to using steroids throughout his career, was instrumental in the NFL implementing rules against throwing opposing player’s helmets.
No. 10: Champ Bailey (CB, 2004-present)—Champ is arguably the greatest shut-down corner to ever put on the Orange and Blue. Lined up opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers, Champ has made a living by shutting them down. Routinely among the leaders in interceptions until 2006, when he led the NFL with 10, teams began to throw his way less and less. These days it may seem easy to overlook Bailey, but that would be a mistake that few opposing offenses can afford. Eleven years into the league, Bailey is still an elite NFL cornerback.
No. 9: Neil Smith (DT, 1997-1999)—A sack master with Kansas City, Smith was already one of the most intimidating defensive linemen when he arrived in Denver. Even though his reputation was already established and he spent relatively few years here, what occurred in those years was monumental. Smith’s intimidating presence anchored a Denver defense that would win its first-ever Super Bowl, and then go back to back the following season. The pressure that Smith was able to apply had a large part in both of those campaigns.
No. 8: Trevor Pryce (DT, 1997-2005)—Defensive lineman don’t get much more imposing than Trevor Pryce. Standing 6’5” and weighing in at 295 pounds, Pryce is a behemoth who could also move well for his size. Leading the Broncos in sacks for six straight years (‘98-’03), Pryce made his living wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
No. 7: Tom Jackson (OLB, 1973-1989)—Playing all 14 seasons of his career with the Denver Broncos, few players brought as much passion and intensity as Tom Jackson. A fiery leader, Jackson always had a way with words, and the ability to stir up the ire of his opponents, which often made him a target on the field. His most infamous taunt came in the 1977 AFC Championship game when he yelled to Raiders’ coach John Madden, “It’s all over fat man!” Fortunately, Jackson also had the toughness to back up his words.
No. 6: Floyd Little (RB, 1967-1975)—Standing just 5’10”, Little intimidated his opponents not with his stature, but with what he could do with his legs—run! Known as “the Franchise,” he was the first Broncos rusher to eclipse 1,000 yards in one season, 1971, when he led the NFL with 1,133. He was also routinely utilized as a punt returner and excelled at it. When he retired in 1973, he was the seventh all-time leading rusher, and his No. 44 was the first to be retired by the Denver Broncos.
No. 5: Shannon Sharpe (TE, 1990-1999, 2002-2003)—No one could talk as much as Shannon Sharpe. He was the master of trash talking and could do it better than anyone. He had words for opponents, the media and even his teammates. However, he could also back up those words on the field and retired as the all-time leading receiver among tight ends. Sharpe was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. Known for taunts, a big smile and wearing a Bronco foam hat and dancing in the end zone, Sharpe was a colorful character who could deliver in the punch.
No. 4: Karl Mecklenburg (LB, 1983-1994)—In the late 1980s, there was no linebacker more ferocious than Karl Mecklenburg. A three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler, Mecklenburg anchored the Denver defense on three Super Bowl teams. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher drafted in the 12th round, he was never supposed to amount to much, but Mecklenburg rose to prominence through sheer determination and grit—and it shone through in his style of play.
No. 3: Steve Atwater (FS, 1989-1998)—Taking over the safety duties from Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater also assumed his title of the hardest hitter in the NFL. Whether 6’3” receivers or 260-pound running backs, no one was safe. Atwater was an agent of doom who patrolled the field with a lethal will. Perhaps one of his most infamous hits came on Monday Night Football when he stuffed the Chiefs’ Christian Okoye at the line of scrimmage on a critical third down. It was said that the hit reverberated around the stadium.
No. 2: Bill Romanowski (LB, 1996-2001)—Although he speaks softly, Romanowski packed a big punch on the field, so much so that it often put him at odds with opponents, teammates and league officials. He has been ejected from games for kicking opponents and spitting on opponents, and has been fined for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, flagrant hits and brawls with teammates. Romanowski was downright nasty, and comes in as the second-most intimidating player in Denver Broncos history.
No 1: John Elway (QB, 1983-1999)—No. 1 could be none other than the duke himself. Intimidating through skill and performance alone, Elway is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. His football IQ, scrambling ability, rocket arm and leadership notwithstanding, particularly deflating to opponents was his uncanny ability to rally his team to victory. He would finish his career with 47 fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks wins—none more dramatic than “The Drive” in the 1986 AFC Championship Game against Cleveland.