This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
In my first nine editions of Ultimate Franchise Player, I believe that I have nominated a diverse group of NFL icons representing a variety of eras and positions. So far, I have gone with a couple of wide receivers, a cornerback/return man (who also moonlighted on offense), a linebacker, a defensive end, a couple of running backs, and, finally, in my lastest segment, nominated a defensive tackle in controversial fashion.
I thought I was going to hear it for snubbing Emmitt Smith and his 21,000+ yards from scrimmage and three Super Bowl rings. Jerod says I was totally out of my mind for not selecting Roger Staubach. And Jerod, who lives in the epicenter of all things Cowboys, is no doubt right – and I grew up watching Roger’s late-game heroics. But no worries – Bob Lilly is just the automatic bid, at-large selections await both Emmitt and Roger in my eventual 64-team field.
But that was Dallas. This is Denver, another iconic franchise with its own list of colorful legends and figures during 50+ years, which has come a long way since being the least heralded of the American Football League’s Original Eight. But in time, the Broncos brought Denver onto the legitimate sports map before the arrival of any of the city’s other professional sports teams.
And at one point I HAVE to select a quarterback as UFP. Or am I actually going to find someone in my own twisted logic who possibly means more to Denver Broncos history than Big John???
Lionel Taylor (WR 1960-66)
The actual game footage and photography are not well documented, but the Broncos’ early history and struggles are. Among them are the infamous brown and mustard second-hand outfits the team played their first couple of years with and going without a playoff berth until 1977.
But Lionel Taylor kept the team competitive most days during the franchise’s early years as one of pro football’s most prolific pass catchers of his time. Taylor became the first pro to catch 100 passes in a season in 1961 (which went into NFL annals once the AFL and NFL merged) and led the AFL in receptions four times during his tenure with the club. Pre-AFL Taylor actually played some linebacker for the Chicago Bears in 1959.
Floyd Little (RB 1967-75)
The Broncos first-ever draft pick under the common AFL/NFL Draft, Floyd went on to become Denver’s first bonafide star and an eventual NFL Hall Of Famer despite fears that he would not be able to absorb pro football pounding standing just 5’10”. A four-time Pro Bowler, Little became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 1971, which also led the NFL that year. He also wore the acclaimed No. 44 (Jim Brown/Ernie Davis) while playing for the University of Syracuse.
Bill Thompson (DB 1969-81)
Thompson was a link from the team’s lean years to its eventual Super Bowl XII appearance and also finally started earning Pro Bowl recognition. He intercepted 40 passes during his career, and his 179 games started ranks second in franchise history.
Tom Jackson (OLB 1973-86)
From the University of…Louisville. I don’t know what is more impressive, lasting 14 years with the Broncos or 25 years at ESPN. Needless to say, he’s been able to hold on to a couple of nice gigs. Jackson is one of four Denver players whose careers bridged between the team’s Super Bowl 12 and Super Bowl 21 appearances.
Louis Wright (CB 1976-86)
Another standout who was arguably the franchise’s best ever corner until Champ Bailey came around. A member of the NFL’s All-70’s Team, Wright played the run just as well as the pass. He finished his career with 26 INTs and 11 fumble recoveries. Wright also scored four touchdowns, the last coming in memorable fashion returning a blocked field goal in overtime in a 1986 game at Mile High Stadium.
Lyle Alzado (DE 1971-78)
Alzado is probably just as much remembered as a Raider for his intimidating persona and hell-raising lifestyle in general, but Alzado’s legend began with eight years in Denver as one of the original ringleaders of the “Orange Crush.” Lyle’s time in Denver culminated by earning league Defensive Player of the Year honors in the team’s 1977 Conference Championship season. Alzado passed away from brain cancer at age 43 and asserted steroid use during his career as a factor in contracting the disease.
Haven Moses (WR 1972-81)
Playing 14 seasons in all, Moses was regarded as a big-play threat, and he averaged 18 yards per reception for his career. Haven did not have the luxury of working with elite QBs during his career, but the arrival of Craig Morton in 1977 helped step up his game to a higher level.
Rick Upchurch (WR/ST 1975-83)
I remember this guy as an absolute demon dating way back to his days at the University of Minnesota. Upchurch’s return exploits earned him All-Pro recognition five times and he is a member of the league’s All-1970s and All-1980s teams. For his career, Upchurch scored via return eight times, four times alone during the 1976 season.
Karl Mecklenburg (ILB 1983-94)
Along with Upchurch, the Broncos have done pretty well with the Golden Gophers program, Karl was a 12th round pick out of Minnesota. A vital part of the defense for a large portion of the John Elway era, Mecklenburg recorded 13 sacks in 1985, the first of six Pro Bowl seasons.
Bill Romanowski (OLB 1996-2001)
Nobel Peace Prize finalist? Probably not. In fact, he is one of the most controversial men ever to play the game. But Romanowski wound up spending 16 years in the league, and his time in Denver included the Broncos’ Super Bowl 32/33 title winning squads. Call him an asshole but you can’t question his desire.
Steve Atwater (FS 1989-98)
A first round pick (#20 overall) out of the University of Arkansas, Atwater’s resume can be described on one single play. Monday Night Football, Christian Okoye, Atwater…and the whole world shook…
In all, Atwater was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection during his career and a member of the NFL’s All-1990s team, and is starting to get Hall of Fame consideration as a semi-finalist in 2012.
Ed McCaffrey (WR 1995-2003)
Another of the great figures of the late Elway era, McCaffrey’s legacy in a nutshell is also summarized by a play that occurred on Monday Night Football. In the Broncos’ season opener in the first regular season game in their current stadium on September 10, 2001, McCaffrey hangs on for a spectacular catch despite suffering a broken leg on the play and needing immediate surgery.
McCaffrey broke Lionel Taylor’s team record with 101 receptions in 2000 and rebounded from his horrific injury in 2002 by catching 69 passes for 903 yards. In the period between 1996-2000, McCaffrey was on the receiving end of 41 TD passes.
Elvis Dumervil (DE 2006-present)
A member of the current crop in Denver, Elvis returned after missing the 2010 season and successfully returned to a Pro Bowl level. In his five seasons in the league, Dumervil has recorded 52.5 sacks, including 17 during the 2009 season.
Al Wilson (MLB 1999-2006)
The Broncos first round selection (31st overall) in the 1999 Draft, Wilson earned Pro Bowl recognition in five of his final six seasons with the team. A back injury suffered late in the 2006 season would prove to prematurely end Wilson’s career.
Von Miller (OLB 2011-present)
Even after just one season, I have to give the No. 2 overall pick of last year’s draft a call on this list since the early returns have him truly being something else. Tim Tebow may have gotten most of the ink from the team’s 2011 playoff run, but Miller was the team’s most valuable player, with 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Gary Zimmerman (OT 1993-97)
There are a couple of Very Honorable Mentions who just fall short of making my final five. Zimmerman was one of the great offensive linemen of his era, and a member of the All-1980s and All-1990s team. Zimmerman gets left off the top five only because a large body of his work came as a member of the Minnesota Vikings (1986-92).
Rod Smith (WR 1995-2006)
One of the greatest undrafted players in league history, Rod is a VERY TOUGH omission from my top five. By the time his career was done, Smith had accounted for more than 11,000 yards receiving and scored 68 times. The peak of Smith’s career was catching 100 passes (1,602 yards in the 2000 season), followed by a club-record 113 receptions the following season (stepping up in Ed McCaffrey’s absence). Besides those two years Smith only earned one other Pro Bowl berth in his career. Rod’s career is defined more by consistency more than being elite.
Up next are my selections for “The Final Five” and the athlete that will be named the Broncos Ultimate Franchise Player.