Answers in Search of a Question: The Golden Age and the Slight Decline of the Broncos Empire

Barrel Man

"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself." -- Lloyd Alexander.

    What is the significance of the following numbers: 9, 15, 26, 30, 66, 81, 84 and 444?  Answer after the fold.


    In the first three parts of this series, we looked at the Broncos' draft picks from round 5 and later from the 1960s through the 1980s.  In this article we will be looking at the two most recent decades -- the 1990s and the 2000s.  In a rather odd turn of perspective, the 1990s have come to be seen as Denver's "Golden Age."  Never mind the fact that the Broncos posted a better record in the 80s (93-58-1 (.611) vs 94-66 (.588)), nor the fact that the two decades had the same number of playoff appearances (5), nor the fact that Denver won more AFC Championships in the 80s (3 vs 2).  No, the great equalizer were the two Super Bowl wins of the 90s.  Those two games -- and more importantly the fact that Denver won those two games -- would be the lens through which the 1990s, and each subsequent year would be viewed.

    In this article, we will be looking at the late round draft choices from 1990 through 2009.  These two decades are being examined together for a couple of reasons.  First, as mentioned above, the 90s are often viewed as Denver's "Golden Age."  Draft choices made since then are often compared to the players on those championship teams.  I will leave it to the readers to decide whether or not this is a fair comparison.  Second, around 1994, the NFL Draft moved to its current 7 round format, which means there are fewer picks to be surveyed.  Third, the years since the Super Bowl wins are often portrayed as a period of decline.  One question that arises is: "What role, if any, have the late round draft choices played in that perceived decline.  Fourth -- and lastly -- I wanted to get the last of the late round picks presented prior to the commencement of the 2010 NFL Draft.

More after the fold

    At the start of this article I asked the significance of a series of 8 numbers.  Some of you may have already guessed.  For those who have not figured it out:

1)30, 66, 81/84 are jersey numbers from 3 players picked in the late rounds during the 1990s.  Terrell Davis (30), Tom Nalen (66) and Shannon Sharpe (81/84 -- Sharpe wore 81 his first two years when he was used initially as a WR.  In his third year he switched to the now familiar 84).

2)444 represents the number of games played by these three players (Davis 78, Nalen 194, Sharpe 172).

3)26 represents the number of seasons these three were the primary starters at their position (Davis 5, Nalen 11, Sharpe 10).

4)15 represents the number of Pro Bowls these three players were elected to (Davis 3, Nalen 5, Sharpe 7).

5)9 represents the number of times these three players were elected First Team All Pro (Davis 3, Nalen 2, Sharpe 4).

Please note: Sharpe's numbers may appear a bit off -- I was only including those numbers accrued as a member of the Broncos.

    So, what did the 1990s and the 2000s look like in terms of late round draft choices?  Do we see a significant pattern between the players picked during the so-called "Golden Age" in contrast to the "Decade of Decline?"

The 1990s

    In the 1990s, there were 51 players chosen in round 5 or later of the NFL draft.  11 of those players did not make the Broncos roster, nor were they picked up by any other team.  1990-1992 each had 11 rounds in the draft.  1993 featured an 8 round draft.  Beginning in 1994, we see the familiar 7 round NFL draft.

1990 -- 7 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)
Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Jeff Davidson
OG
1990-1992
Played 44 games, started 30
5
Le-Lo Lang
DB
1990-1993
Played 54 games; recorded 1 sack and 5 interceptions;
6
Ronnie Haliburton
TE
1990-1991
Played 17 games; no recorded stats
7
Shannon Sharpe
TE
1990-1999, 2002-2003
Started 139 out of 172 games for the Broncos; caught 675 passes for 8439 yards and 82 TDs; rushed 3 times for 9 yards; elected to 7 Pro Bowls; elected 1st Team All Pro 4 times; inducted into Denver's Ring of Fame in 2005
8
Brad Leggett
C
N/A
Never played for Denver
10
Jim Szymanski
DE
1990-1991
Played in 7 games, started 6; no recorded stats
10
Anthony Thompson
LB
1990
Played in 10 games; no recorded stats


The largest draft class (in terms players who actually made the roster) of the 1990s.  This class is most noted for netting Shannon Sharpe for the Broncos.


1991 -- 4 Players (+2 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Greg Lewis
RB
1991-1992
Played in 32 games, started 6; rushed 172 times for 644 yards and 8 TDs; caught 6 passes for 39 yards
6
Nick Subis
OT
1991
Played in 16 games
8
Kenny Walker
DE
1991-1992
Started 16 out of 31 games; recorded 4.5 sacks; recovered 2 fumbles
11
Shawn Moore
QB
1992
Played 3 games; completed 17 passes for 232 yards and 0 TDs with 3 interceptions; rushed 8 times for 39 yards


An undistinguished draft class without any notable impact.


1992 -- 6 Players (+3 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Frank Robinson
DB
1993
Played for both Denver & Cincinnati in 1992; played 28 games for the Broncos; had 1 interception, returned 4 kicks for 89 yards
7
Ron Geater
DE
1992
Played in 3 games; no recorded stats
9
Muhammad Oliver
DB
1992
Played in 3 games; no recorded stats
10
Bob Meeks
C
1993
Played in 8 games; returned 1 kick for 9 yards
11
Cedric Tillman
WR
1992-1994
Played in 39 games, started 7; caught 57 passes for 859 yards and 4 TDs
12
John Granby
WR
1992
Played in 4 games; no recorded stats


Another undistinguished draft class.  Everyone made the team, but no-one other than Tillman had any kind of impact.


1993 -- 5 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Kevin D Williams
RB
N/A
Never played for the Broncos
6
Melvin Bonner
WR
1993
Played 3 games; no recorded stats
7
Clarence Williams
TE
N/A
Never played for Denver
7
Tony Kimbrough
WR
1993-1994
Played in 27 games; caught 10 passes for 99 yards
8
Brian Stablein
WR
N/A
Never played for the Broncos


Yet another late round draft class that did little to contribute to the Broncos' success in the 1990s.


1994 -- 3 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
7
Keith Burns
LB
1994-1998, 2000-2003, 2005-2006
Did 3 stints with the Broncos, with 1 year sojourns in Chicago and Tampa Bay; played in 166 games for the Broncos; recorded 1.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles; recovered 7 fumbles; made 91 tackles and assisted on 24 more tackles
7
Butler By'not'e
RB
1994
Played in 9 games; returned 24 kicks for 545 yards
7
Tom Nalen
C
1994-2007
Started 188 out of 194 games; was elected to 5 Pro Bowls (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003) and was elected 1st Team All Pro twice (2000, 2003)


A small draft class, but one that gave us two of the better known players in Burns and Nalen.


1995 -- 4 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Phil Yeboah-Kodie
LB
N/A
Never played for Denver
6
Terrell Davis
RB
1995-2001
Started 71 out of 78 games for the Broncos; rushed 1655 times for 7607 yards with 60 TDs; caught 169 passes for 1280 yards and 5 TDs; was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1996, 1997 and 1998; was elected 1st Team All Pro in 1996, 1997 and 1998; was named AP Offensive Player of the Year in 1996 and 1998; was the NFL AP MVP in 1998; was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXII.
7
Steve Russ
LB
1997, 1999-2000
Played in 24 games; no recorded stats
7
Byron Chamberlain
TE
1995-2000
Played in 73 games; caught 72 passes for 964 yards and 3 TDs


This late round draft class is best known for Terrell Davis -- which began the legend of Denver being able to take any late round RB pick and turn them into a 1000 yard rusher. 


1996 -- 3 Players (+3 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Patrick Jeffers
WR
1996-1997
Played in 14 games; caught 3 passes for 24 yards
6
Tony Veland
DB
1997
Played in 12 games; recovered 1 fumble
7
Chris Banks
OG
1998-1999
Played in 20 games


A draft class of three who played for a short time, and left no lasting imprint on the team.


1997 -- No players chosen in rounds 5-7.

In the strangest draft class to date -- absolutely no picks in rounds 5-7.



1998 -- 3 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Chris Howard
RB
N/A
Never played for Denver
6
Trey Teague
C
1999-2001
Started 24 out of 30 games for the Broncos
7
Nate Wayne
LB
1998-1999
Played in 16 games; recorded 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble; made 8 tackles and had 2 assists


Another small draft class with minor contributions by the players who made the team

  
1999 -- 5 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
David Bowens
DE
1999
Played 16 games for Denver; recorded 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery; made 7 tackles
6
Desmond Clark
TE
1999-2001
Started 6 out of 41 games; caught 79 passes for 910 yards and 9 TDs
6
Chad Plummer
WR
N/A
Never played for Denver
7
Billy Miller
TE
1999-2000
Played in 22 games; caught 6 passes for 66 yards
7
Justin Swift
TE
N/A
Never played for Denver


An undistinguished draft class, that was picked largely from the Broncos' need to replace Shannon Sharpe.

Some Observations about the 1990s late round picks


1)The 1990s saw the Broncos build and solidify a reputation as being a consistently competitive team.

2)From 1990 to 1999, the Broncos drafted 51 players in round 5 or later.

3)Of those 51 players, 11 failed to make the Broncos or any other NFL team.

4)Of the 40 that were drafted and became pro football players, 32 began their careers with the Broncos, the best percentage to date.

4)The average Broncos career for these 32 players was  3.1 years, a drop from the 1980s.

5)Denver saw some highs during this period, with the winning of two Super Bowls, and the late round drafting of such notable players as: Shannon Sharpe, Keith Burns, Tom Nalen, Terrell Davis and Byron Chamberlain.


The 2000s

    In the 2000s, there were 31 players chosen in round 5 or later of the NFL draft.  8 of those players did not make the Broncos roster, nor were they picked up by any other team.  1 player has spent 2 years either injured or on the practice squad. 


2000 -- 2 Players (+2 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
6
Mike Anderson
RB
2000-2005
Started 51 out of 74 games; rushed 865 times for 3822 yards and 36 TDs; caught 79 passes for 647 yards and 5 TDs; AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2000
7
Jarious Jackson
QB
2000-2003
Played in 5 games; completed 11 passes for 114 yards


Anderson further cemented the image of the Broncos as a team that could take any running back and turn them into a 1000 yard rusher.  Jackson never quite panned out.


2001 -- 1 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
6
Kevin Kasper
WR
2001-2002
Played in 14 games; returned 29 kicks for 765 yards; caught 8 passes for 84 yards


A round in which Denver had only a single late round pick. Kasper never managed to become an integral part of the Broncos.


2002 -- 4 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Herb Haygood
WR
2002
Played in 4 games; no recorded stats
6
Jeb Putzier
TE
2002-2005, 2008
Played in 41 games, started 10; caught 77 passes for 1087 yards and 2 TDs
7
Chris Young
DB 2003-2004
Played in 21 games; no recorded stats
7
Monsanto Pope
DT
2002-2005
Played in 48 games, started 21; had 6 sacks and 1 forced fumble; made 49 tackles and assisted on 13


A draft class in which all late round players made the team, though only 2 (Putzier, Pope) became recognizable names.  Neither Pope nor Putzier became major contributors.


2003 -- 2 Players (+3 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Ben Claxton
OG
N/A
Never played for Denver
5
Adrian Madise
WR
2003
Played in 11 games; returned 5 kicks for 137 yards; caught 2 passes for 10 yards


A draft class that, for all intents and purposes, did not exist.  Less than half the picks made the Broncos (or any other team), and the one that did make the Denver roster did very little to impact the fortunes of the team.


2004 -- 5 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Jeff Shoate
DB
2004 & 2007
Appeared in 7 games in each season; 6 tackles, 2 assists
6
Triandos Luke
WR
2004
Appeared in 10 games; returned 34 kicks for 441 yards; caught 6 passes for 42 yards
7
Matt Mauck
QB
N/A
Never played for Denver
7
Brandon Miree
RB
N/A
Never played for Denver
7
Bradlee Van Pelt
QB
2005
Appeared in 3 games; rushed 11 times for 48 yards and 1 TD; completed 2 passes for 7 yards


Still another disappointing late round class.  The three players to make the team played for a combined 20 games.


2005 -- 2 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
6
Chris Myers
OG
2005-2007
Played in 41 games, started 16
7
Paul Ernster
K
2005-2007
Played in 18 games; punted 85 times for 3516 yards


Myers looked like he was going to become a key part of the O-line, but that never panned out.  Ernster was mainly used as a situational player.


2006 -- 1 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Chris Kuper
OG
2006-2009
Started 27 out of 35 games; recovered 1 fumble; made 2 tackles


Kuper has become a mainstay of the O-line.


2007 -- No players picked in rounds 5-7.

A year in which the Broncos had no picks after the 4th round.


2008 -- 5 Players (+0 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Ryan Torain
RB
2008
Appeared in 2 games; rushed 15 times for 69 yards and 1 TD; his career was cut short by a series of injuries
5
Carleton Powell
DT
2008-2009
Injuries have kept Powell on the practice squad
6
Spencer Larsen
LB
2008-2009
Appeared in 23 games; made 32 tackles and 3 assists
7
Josh Barrett
DB
2008-2009
Appeared in 20 games; made 32 tackles and 8 assists; defensed 4 passes and made 1 interception
7
Peyton Hillis
RB
2008-2009
Appeared in 26 games; rushed 81 times for 397 yards and 6 TDs; caught 18 passes for 198 yards and 1 TD; returned 10 kicks for 199 yards


This draft class brought Spencer Larsen and Josh Barrett to the Broncos -- two players who are viewed by many to be up & coming contributors.  Ryan Torain was expected to be the next great Denver running back, but injuries kept him from every achieving that expectation.  Fan favorite, Peyton Hillis, showed flashes of promise in Denver's 2008 injury-plagued RB corp, but did not seem to fit the new offense installed by McDaniels and was subsequently traded.

  
2009 -- 2 Players (+1 that did not make the team, nor any other team)

Round
Player
Position
Years w/Broncos
Notes
5
Kenny McKinley
WR
2009
Appeared in 8 games; returned 10 kicks for 190 yards;
6
Tom Branstater
QB
2009
Was 3rd string on the depth chart; did not appear in any games


A small class that shows promise, but too early to truly evaluate.


Some Observations about the 1990s late round picks

1)The 2000s saw Denver slide away from the glory days of the two Super Bowl wins.  Ten years and only 4 playoff appearances left coaches, players and fans wanting more.

2)From 2000 to 2009, the Broncos drafted 31 players in round 5 or later.

3)Of those 31 players, 8 failed to make the Broncos or any other NFL team.

4)Of the 23 that were drafted and became pro football players, 21 began their careers with the Broncos, the best percentage to date.

4)The average Broncos career for these 23 players was  2.2 years, a drop from the 1990s -- a horrendous rate over a 10 year period.

5)The Broncos did have a few bright spots among an otherwise disappointing decade of late round draft picks:  Mike Anderson, Chris Myers,  Chris Kuper, Spencer Larsen, Josh Barrett have all made strong contributions.  Kenny McKinley has shown promise.


Tying It All Together: 50 Years of Late Round Draft Picks

1)Since 1961, Denver has drafted 419 players in the 5th round or later.  A part of the reason these numbers are so high is that in the 1960s, the AFL draft had 30 rounds.  The number of rounds gradually dwindled, until the NFL arrived at the current 7 round format in 1994.

2)Out of the 419 players drafted, 194 (or 46%) not only failed to make the Broncos' roster, they failed to have an AFL/NFL career of any sort.  It would be interesting to see how that percentage compares to other AFL/NFL teams during the same time frame.

3)Out of the 225 players that did make a roster, only 156 made the Broncos' roster.  So, overall, only 37% of Denver's late round choices actually made the team.  The Broncos' best decade was the 2000s, wherein 68% of the late round picks made the roster.  The worst decade was the 1970s when only 26% made the roster.  The high percentage of those who made the roster in the 2000s may be a reflection -- as befree2bronc pointed out in an earlier part of this series -- of an improvement in scouting and evaluation techniques.

4)The average career of the late round picks who made the Broncos' roster is 3.2 years.  The best decade was the 1980s where the picks had an average tenure with the Broncos of 4.5 years.  The worst was the 2000s where the average tenure was 2.2 years.  This is, arguably, the most telling factor in evaluating how Denver has done in the late rounds.  It is disturbing to think that despite having 68% of the late round draft picks from 2000-2009 make the team, those players only played for Denver an average of 2.2 years -- or almost a year-and-a-half under the league average for playing careers.  This is a trend that began in the 1990s. 

5)While, perhaps, not being overall satisfactory, the Broncos' late round draft choices did offer up some gems who went on to become well-known, mainstay players.








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