The Denver Broncos have made some killer first-round picks during the team's 58 years of existence. Today, we decide who were the 15 best in franchise history.
Turning first-round picks into quality NFL players in never easy. The Denver Broncos, like pretty much any of the other 31 teams in the league, are evidence of this. Despite the difficulty of landing a star on day one, the Broncos have had their fair share of draft-day successes.
But who were the best of the bunch among the Broncos' first-round picks? Well, to answer that question, I put together a list of every player the team has ever selected in the first round. Then, I whittled it down to the 15 greatest players to ever wear the navy and orange, taking things like stats, Pro Bowls and Super Bowl appearances into consideration.
And no, Tim Tebow didn't make the cut. Just, no.
I will also put this out in the open so no one throws a fit -- John Elway was not selected by the Broncos. He was actually drafted by the Baltimore Colts, who were then leveraged into trading the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback. So no, he will not be on this list.
It's also worth noting that two of the Broncos' first few first-round selections, Pro Football Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen and Bob Brown, never actually played for the club. Both opted to play for their NFL counterparts (Denver was still in the AFL), so you won't find either on this list.
Now that we've got that all cleared up, here are my selections for the Broncos' 15 greatest first-round picks in team history. Many of the team's best picks came in the later rounds, but there were still plenty of tremendous early round additions in this franchise's past.
Realistically, D.J. Williams was never anything special for the Broncos. Although he was an outstanding starter for the nine years he was in town, the former No. 17 overall pick was always a productive, reliable piece of the Denver defense.
Just look at these numbers: through nine campaigns, he amassed 824 total tackles, 20.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles. His 2007 effort was the highlight of his stay with the club, during which he racked up 141 total tackles to lead the NFL.
His time in Denver wasn't always perfect. He had a couple run-ins with the law that certainly shed ugly light on what he did on the field. When all was said and done, though, we have to see this from a neutral point of view. Williams turned out better than most first-round picks, proving to be a quality linebacker who nearly walked away with the 2004 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Williams may never have earned a Pro Bowl nod or won any major awards, but he was one of Denver's key defensive playmakers throughout the early 2000s. He may have even been higher on this list if it wasn't for the off-field issues that plagued him throughout his NFL career.
Tom Glassic never went to the Pro Bowl. Glassic will never even enter the Hall of Fame conversation. However, when you look back on his career with the Broncos, it's easy to understand why he finds himself on this list.
Glassic was a starter essentially from the day he was drafted by Denver. An instant-impact player at guard, he helped pave the way for some of the franchise's more success squads in the 1970s and 1980s. He even played an integral role in the Broncos' run to Super Bowl XII, although the effort fell short thanks to the Dallas Cowboys.
Either way, Glassic was a staple in the Denver offense for his eight seasons with the club. If it wasn't for nagging injuries that eventually brought his career to a merciful end, we may have seen even more outstanding play from the Virginia product.
Between his eight seasons as a starter, role in the Super Bowl appearance and his unique personality, Glassic will easily go down as one of the best interior offensive lineman to ever don the navy and orange.
Another in a long line of outstanding Denver linebackers, John Mobley never seemed to disappoint -- at least until the end. Still, despite his DUI that capped off his NFL career, he was a sensational talent during his eight seasons in the league.
That, however, is why he finds himself at only No. 13. The 1996 first-round pick was terrific when he was playing for the Broncos, but managed only six full seasons. His 1999 campaign ended shortly after it started because of injury, and then a bruised spinal column sent him into early retirement after a 2003 season that was cut in half.
Regardless, Mobley made an unmistakable impact for the Broncos. He played a key role in two Super Bowl victories. In fact, he made the historic deflection in Super Bowl XXXII that kept Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers from converting on a huge fourth down that sealed the victory for Denver -- and his status as a franchise legend.
Mobley may not have been as productive as Williams, but his impact was just as great. He earned a First-Team All-Pro nod in 1997, was a Super Bowl hero and formed a dynamic linebacker duo with another star further down this list. Sounds like the résumé of one of the Broncos' best first-round picks of all time.
It's hard to ignore the fact that Otis Armstrong didn't have one of the more consistent careers among Broncos running backs. Despite playing eight seasons in the Mile High City, he was the full-time starter in only three of them. Still, the impact he had was undeniable.
Just look back at his sophomore 1974 season, during which he was an unstoppable force. Armstrong won the rushing title with 1,407 yards on the ground, struck pay dirt a total of 12 times and even pitched in as an exceptional return man. His 5.3 yards per carry and 100.5 yards per game were among the best single-season rushing figures in Denver history.
That All-Pro effort essentially earned him a spot on this list all by itself. Unfortunately, it's almost all downhill from there. He took a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1976 and helped the Broncos reach the Super Bowl a year later, but began to fall out of favor. When the 1980 season came to a close, he decided to call it a career.
Although the overall impact of his career is questionable, Armstrong made his mark in Denver. His 1974 campaign was one of the best the Broncos ever saw by a running back. For that, he sits comfortably here at No. 12.
The Broncos haven't found themselves many star wide receivers in the first-round over their 50+ years as a franchise. So even though he finds himself here, Demaryius Thomas is far and away the best pair of hands to ever hear his name called by Denver on day one.
Now I know his production and effectiveness have wavered in recent years, but that can be attributed to more than just Thomas. Going from Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch as his quarterback would be a difficult transition for any NFL receiver. Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, Thomas continues to impress.
Since taking over as the full-time starter in 2012, Thomas has been one of the best receivers in the NFL. From 2012 to 2015, he hauled in a remarkable 402 passes for 5,787 yards and 41 touchdowns. His explosive combination of size and speed has baffled cornerbacks for years, and that should continue to be the case moving forward.
The Super Bowl ring certainly helped land him a spot on this list as well.
Especially with Case Keenum now throwing his way, expect a resurgence from Thomas in 2018. If he can reclaim that spark we saw during his otherworldly 2014 season, we may even watch him add to the five Pro Bowl selections already under his belt.
Look at that -- another linebacker! The Broncos have a knack for hitting home runs when they select linebackers in the first round, and Al Wilson is no exception.
As I mentioned previously, Mobley was teamed with another sensational linebacker that allowed the Denver defense to enjoy plenty of tremendous play at the position during the late 1990s. Well Wilson was that other linebacker, if you didn't already know that on your own.
Like many of the other players on this list, Wilson spent his entire career with the Broncos. Although it was shorter than he probably wanted it to be, it was filled with amazing production, plenty of highlight-reel plays and more than enough accolades for one linebacker. Seriously, the guy ended his career with five Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections to his name.
Wilson never did win a Super Bowl, and his career was ultimately cut short by injury. After the Broncos cut him loose in 2007, he would never see another down. Still, even with another uneventful end to an outstanding career, it's difficult not to celebrate everything Wilson accomplished in those eight years.
While most of the other names on this list only played for the Broncos for less than a decade, Dennis Smith was the model of longevity. Not only was he a star during his stay with the team, but he spent all 14 of his NFL seasons in Denver.
That's quite the accomplishment, especially during a time in the NFL's history when player safety wasn't quite as high of a priority as it is today. It makes it all the more impressive when you consider that Smith spent most of his professional career serving as one of the league's hardest hitting safeties.
Smith was much more than just a feared missile in the middle of the Denver defense, though. The USC product was outstanding in coverage, racking up 30 career interceptions and causing headaches for nearly ever quarterback who was forced to throw into his coverage. Between that and has knack for knocking people out, Smith found his way on to six Pro Bowl rosters.
It's rare to find a safety who can swing the momentum in such a short amount of time. However, the Broncos did exactly that in Smith, who only cost them the No. 15 overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft. The rest, as they say, was history.
Riley Odoms may not have been the best tight end to ever suit up for the Broncos (we all know who that was), but he was certainly a consistent, reliable presence for the Denver passing game that never wavered for the better part of a decade.
Odoms played for the Broncos for 12 years, nine of which were spent as the full-time starter. Although he never had a monstrous season, he put together one exceptional outing after another. As a result, he was rewarded with four Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections.
Some may have considered selecting a tight end at No. 5 a reach. Very rarely are tight ends ever taken that high in the draft. Despite the presumed reach, Odoms more than earned his keep with the Broncos, proving to be a reliable weapon throughout his stay in Denver. He even played a prominent role in the Broncos' Super Bowl run in 1977.
Although he has yet to enter the club's Ring of Honor, it's assumed he'll make it in sooner rather than later. If you look back at his extended career and undeniable impact, there's really no reason to keep him out at this point.
The Broncos really hit a home run with Trevor Pryce, who turned out to be one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever grace the gridiron for Denver. Although his effectiveness wavered down the stretch, Pryce was a bona fide star when at his best.
He did his damage in Denver for the first nine years of his NFL career before spending a few years with the Baltimore Ravens. Before injuries and age started to take a toll on him, he was one of the most feared pass rushers the league had seen. From 1998 to 2003, he racked up an astounding 58 sacks, including 8.5 for the 1998 championship team.
When all was said and done, Pryce had earned four Pro Bowl nods, three All-Pro selections and two Super Bowl rings. To cap it off, he was named to the Broncos' 50th Anniversary team, a true testament to the lasting impression he made on the franchise's history.
Pryce essentially modeled what we look for in today's outstanding three-techniques. He was big and physical, but possessed enough athleticism to push the pocket from the inside. It's a difficult skill set to come by, but Pryce used it perfectly to help the Broncos shine during the late 1990s.
Most people tend to remember Ryan Clady more for the slew of major injuries that brought his NFL career to an quick-yet-ugly end. However, despite the health issues, we simply can't ignore the monumental impact the offensive tackle had during his days in Denver.
When healthy, Clady was a franchise left tackle. In today's NFL, those are few and far between. What was all the more impressive is how he was the model of consistency throughout his first five seasons, during which he started all the possible 80 games. His efforts resulted in four Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections -- not too shabby for a young offensive tackle.
Then, things took a turn for the worst. Clady suffered a Lisfranc injury in 2013, limiting him to only two appearances. He bounced back strong in 2014, earning what would be his final trip to the Pro Bowl that year. Then, in 2015, he tore his ACL during OTAs, costing him an opportunity to play for that season's championship Broncos squad.
After a short stint with the New York Jets, Clady hung up his cleats for good.
It may not have been a perfect ending to his career, but Clady was damn near perfect for six seasons. As short as that may sound, I can assure you the Broncos enjoyed every moment of having the outstanding blind side blocker on their roster. We may have even been talking Pro Football Hall of Fame some day if his health hadn't have deteriorated so quickly...
If you thought Smith was a wide receiver's worst nightmare, then Steve Atwater was the nightmare forcing its way into reality and scaring the will out of anyone who dared enter his zone. Seriously, the Broncos' superstar safety was that good at inflicting pain.
Known by many as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in NFL history, Atwater feasted on the fear of opposing receivers. It wasn't just pass catchers that had to worry about the Denver's devastating hammer in the secondary. One his most memorable hits came on Christian Okoye, a massive Kansas City Chiefs running back commonly referred to as the "Nigerian Nightmare."
It wasn't just his hitting that earned him this spot on the list, though. Like Smith, Atwater also excelled at making plays on the football in the air. Even if he wasn't actually physically deflecting the pass, his presence in the defensive backfield was more than enough to make receivers think twice about coming down with the football.
When his career was over, Atwater had amassed eight Pro Bowl selections, three All-Pro selections and two Super Bowl rings. He's already in the Broncos' Ring of Honor, and is one of the top snubs of the Pro Football Hall of Fame up to this point.
Unless you're a diehard Broncos fan, you probably haven't even heard of Louis Wright before now. He isn't often mentioned among the best cornerbacks in NFL history. However, if you saw him play or even heard someone who did talk about him, you'd understand.
Wright was one of the greatest cornerbacks of his era, even finding his way on to the NFL's 1970s All-Decade Team alongside names like Willie Brown and Jimmie Johnson. Seriously, he was that good at covering opposing receivers and making life difficult for quarterbacks who dared sling it in his direction. What's more is he possessed unparalleled tenacity as a run defender.
It makes it even better when you consider that Wright spent all of his 12 NFL seasons with the Broncos. During that time, he played in 166 games (all but one as the starter), intercepted 26 passes, made five Pro Bowls, two All-Pro teams and made one Super Bowl appearance.
Wright was a shutdown cornerback before there was such a thing. He was one of the main members of the "Orange Crush" defense, and will go down in Broncos history as one of the truly elite cornerbacks to call the Mile High City his home.
The only Pro Football Hall of Famer who was drafted by and played for the Broncos (so far), Floyd Little is absolutely deserving of one of the top spots on this list. "The Franchise" was an outstanding asset for Denver as they made their transition from the AFL to the NFL.
What I love about Little is that he spent his entire nine-year career with Broncos. Although that wasn't as rare as it is these days, it was a testament to his durability, loyalty and willingness to do everything in his power to help Denver shine on the gridiron.
When his career came to a close in 1975, he was ranked seventh on the NFL's all-time rushing yards list. He was an unstoppable force for a Denver team that never enjoyed much success during his tenure, although it's fair to speculate that they may have been even worse had Little not been using his versatility and well-rounded skill set to strike fear in opposing defenses.
Whether he was taking handoffs, catching passes or returning kicks, Little was always lighting fireworks for the Broncos. He scored 54 total touchdowns during his time in the Mile High City, which allowed him to enter the team's Ring of Honor upon its inception in 1984.
There have been some great running backs in the Broncos' history. However, the rest pale in comparison to Little.
Here it is -- the epitome of elite linebacker play. Of all the first-round linebackers who have excelled for Denver over the years, none made a more memorable impact than Randy Gradishar, the heart and soul of the "Orange Crush" defense.
Honestly, it's a bit baffling Gradishar hasn't yet found his way into the Hall of Fame. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and is often considered among the greatest linebackers to ever play the game. Although he's currently in the Broncos' Ring of Honor, it doesn't do justice to the immense impact he made in Denver.
Gradishar was a fearless leader for the Broncos, serving as the best player on a defense that also included Wright, Steve Foley and Tom Jackson. He led the way for Denver to make its first playoff appearance as a franchise in 1977, which included a Super Bowl appearance that culminated in a tough loss to the Cowboys.
Many would make a case for Gradishar as the greatest defender in Broncos history. Although the No. 1 player on this list also plays defense, it shouldn't take anything away from the truly great career that Gradishar had.
Admittedly, all the top three players were worthy of the No. 1 spot on this list. Floyd Little and Randy Gradishar made excellent cases for the honor, but I just couldn't imagine giving it to anyone else besides one of the most disruptive pass rushers in today's NFL.
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The No. 2 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Von Miller has spent his entire professional career terrorizing opposing passers. In seven seasons, he's tallied 83.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and even a couple of touchdowns. Oh, and then there's the Super Bowl 50 MVP award.
It's not just the production, though. Miller has asserted himself as the voice of the Denver defense, serving as a leader and mentor for a defense that hasn't lost its effectiveness over the years.
Although things have gone south in terms of the team's overall success, the defense has maintained its level of dominance.
A big part of that is Miller and his elite edge rushing abilities. He's been an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in all but one on his seasons in the Mile High City -- that year, he missed nearly half the Broncos' games between a suspension and late-season ACL tear. It's unheard of to make that type of impact consistently for so long. If it continues, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is absolutely in his future.
Hence, Miller's selection as the best first-round pick in Denver history.