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The 10 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History

John Elway, in legendary style, running through the snow against the Chiefs.
John Elway, in legendary style, running through the snow against the Chiefs.

In today's Denver Post, the talented Patrick Saunders wrote on his top 10 Denver Broncos players of all time. The list was solid and the players represented were top-notch, but the space constraints were limiting.


And since we (Kirk) love to discuss who the greatest players are (read his pieces on the Broncos Greats by the Numbers), why not get some great conversation and reminisce about Broncos greats of the past?


Here's a top 10 Denver Broncos list, MHR style:

1. John Elway


Undoubtedly and unquestionably the greatest player to ever adorn himself in the Broncos' orange and blue.


John Elway was a life-long Denver Bronco, he's the Duke of Denver, and he gave every ounce of himself to the Broncos. After threatening to play baseball for the Yankees, Elway forced his way out of Baltimore and stayed in Denver for the duration of his storied 16-year career.


Elway stuck it out with the Broncos through trials and tribulations. The team was terrible when he arrived in Denver, he had a long, drawn-out battle with Dan Reeves and the Broncos were bad again post-Reeves and pre-Shanahan.


John Elway was the driving force in Denver on offense—he basically led the Broncos to the three Super Bowls in the 80s with a bunch of mediocre players around him.


Elway was the 1987 NFL MVP, the same year he constructed "The Drive" to destruct Cleveland.


A nine-time NFL Pro Bowler, Elway was named to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.


Of course, at the end of his career, Elway walked away from the game as a back-to-back NFL champion, taking home the Super Bowl XXXIII MVP. He was the only quarterback to start five Super Bowls and he is one of only two players (Thurman Thomas) to rush for a TD in four different Super Bowls.


Above everything else, Elway was a winner—he gave the game absolutely all he had in order to win.


At the time of his retirement in 1999, Elway was the all-time leader for NFL wins by a QB (148), he was the second ever quarterback to pass for 50,000 yards in his career and the most telling stat is his 47 fourth quarter game-tying or winning drives. Elway's team was never dominant until his last two seasons, but Elway always kept the Broncos in games, he always gave them a chance to win when it mattered the most.


And when it was all said and done, Elway was the first ever Denver Broncos player elected into the Professional Football Hall of Fame and the first (and only) Bronco to have his number retired.


John Elway had the sheer determination, drive and will to win games and titles. He encapsulated everything that it takes to be the ultimate competitor, leaving his physical self on the turf of Mile High Stadium at the end of every game, playing injured too many times to count and still carrying his team to victory, clutching wins from the jaws of defeat.


The only thing that could make his legend grow even further is if he turned the sad state of the Broncos around into champions again. (Spoiler alert: John Elway will one day take over ownership of the Broncos from Pat Bowlen. When? TBD)



2. Terrell Davis


TD seemed like a silly nickname for a player so spectacular, but it ended up fitting perfectly for a player that found the end zone home so many times.


Terrell Davis scored 60 touchdowns during his injury-shortened career, including an NFL-high 21 in 1998.


But scoring TDs wasn't all TD did, he was a unique combination of agility and toughness.


His running was fluid like the Colorado River and strong like an Elk.


Davis, selected out of the sixth round of the 1995 NFL Draft, was never expected to be the starter, let alone dominating the game of football on the ground for two straight seasons.


What made Terrell Davis so special was how he improved impressively for the first four seasons of his career.


TD ran for 1,113, 1,538, 1,750 and 2,008 yards in consecutive seasons. It's somewhat insane to ponder how a player could do what Davis did.


In the touchdown category, the same could be said as TD rushed for 7, 13, 15 and 21 TDs in those same four seasons. And don't forget, Davis could catch the ball from out of the backfield, he ran up nearly 1,200 yards receiving and tacked on five TDs through the air during the height of his career.


With Terrell Davis, Mike Shanahan controlled the clock and limited possessions for opponents, making the Denver Broncos of the late 90s one of the greatest teams in the history of the NFL.


In the playoffs, Davis was even more valuable; he ran for 1,140 yards and 12 TDs in the postseason from 1996-1998 and he was the hands-down MVP of Super Bowl XXXII when he ran for 157 yards and 3 TDs.


What made the performance legendary was his doing it all through a migraine headache that came on in the second quarter.


Legacy-building were his spin-moves around Green Bay defenders, making them look silly, his 2,008 yards in 1998 when no one in the NFL could touch him and his amazing humility through it all.



3. Floyd Little


Floyd Little was everything that was right with the Denver Broncos when everything else was so wrong.


The Broncos of the 1960s were tremendously terrible, but Floyd Little was their shining white stallion in the darkest times in franchise history.

Much like Terrell Davis, Little improved every year in rushing yards, but for his first five seasons. Little was the first Denver Bronco to take the AFC rushing title with 901 yards in 1970 and he was the first Broncos player to rush for over 1,000 yards in 1971 (1,133, 6 TDs).


Floyd Little was so domineering during his time he led the AFL and NFL in rushing and yards over a five-year span, from scrimmage from 1968-1973, and he was a part of three of the first four NFL Pro Bowls (1970-71, 1973).


When he retired in 1975, Floyd Little's 6,323 yards were good for 7th best in NFL history to that point, but he wasn't just a running back.


Little had good hands and a knack for catching the ball and turning up field. He caught 215 passes for 2,418 yards and 9 TDs over his nine year career.


Plus, Little was a punt and kickoff returner early on, he took 104 kickoffs back for 2,523 total yards.


Floyd Little was an all-around talent, the second best Denver Broncos running back ever and he was finally enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year.



4. Shannon Sharpe


I once wrote that Shannon Sharpe is the greatest tight end in the history of the NFL, and I stand by the piece.


Sharpe revolutionized the game for tight ends; from boring blocking specialists to pass-catching threats that could create matchup migraine headaches for defenses.


Sharpe wasn't speedy but his super sized body was perfect for gaining position advantages on defenders and he was John Elway's go-to-guy for much of Elway's career.


One such play illustrates the point.


In 1998, with the Broncos leading in the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, Denver was backed up against the Steelers' goal line in need of a first down to seal the deal. Elway dropped back, eluded blitzing defenders and got a pass off to Sharpe in desperation. Shannon secured the ball and the victory with the catch and the Broncos went on to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history that season.


Sharpe ended up winning three straight Super Bowls (two with Denver and one with Baltimore) and when Sharpe retired after 14 glorious seasons, he was the leader among tight ends all-time in career receptions (815), reception yards (10,060) and touchdowns (62), including 1,000-plus yards in three seasons and two years of 10-plus TDs.


Like Elway, Sharpe was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team and he was selected to eight Pro Bowls over his career.


And Sharpe wasn't just outstanding on the field, he was one of the greatest trash-talkers, he possessed one of the most outspoken, and to fans, warm personalities of any player in memory.


Sharpe deserves getting into the Hall of Fame, and he will be enshrined August 6, 2011 (tickets are still available!)




5. Gary Zimmerman


From one Hall of Famer to another.


Zimmerman was the man on the Broncos' offensive line during the mid-90s. Zimmerman protected John Elway's blind side as the starting left tackle, and he was a bruising beast of a blocker.


Zimmerman spent his first seven seasons in Minnesota before being traded to Denver in 1993 and finishing his last five seasons with the Broncos. Despite playing one of the most physically demanding positions, Zimmerman only missed eight games out of 192 as an NFL offensive lineman.


Zimm was an eight-time Pro Bowler and he was one of only a handful of players to be named to two NFL All-Decade teams (1980s, 1990s).


Zimmerman blocked for conference-leading quarterbacks four times and he was a major reason Terrell Davis enjoyed so much success on the ground.



6. Steve Atwater


Steve Atwater was one of the most punishing hitting safeties the NFL has ever known.


Atwater was selected by the Broncos in the first round of the 1989 draft and he immediately went to seven straight Pro Bowls and eight overall (1990-96, 1998) and was named to the NFL All-Decade team as the preeminent safety in football at the time.


Atwater's defining hit was his smashing of Christian Okoye of the Chiefs at Mile High Stadium (and the "ooohs" and "booms" let out by the crowd after it was replayed on the jumbo tron).


But Atwater's defining game was definitely Super Bowl XXXII. During the game, Atwater racked up six tackles, a sack, two passes defended and forced a fumble. The sack on Brett Favre and the forced fumble came at a crucial point in the game, it turned the tide in the Broncos' favor and Atwater would have likely won MVP of the game if it weren't for Davis' divine play.



7. Karl Mecklenburg


While Mecklenburg may have never won an elusive championship and he likely won't be enshrined into the Hall of Fame, he does have one thing the others don't, he was selected in the 12th round of the 1983 draft.


Mecklenburg was a chief member of the Orange Crush defense in Denver during the 1980s, he put pressure on opponents' quarterbacks like no one else. When he retired in 1994 due to injury, Meck had amassed 79.5 career sacks, second most in Denver Broncos franchise history.


Mecklenburg's play was so phenomenal he was selected to represent the AFC in six Pro Bowls and was a three-time AP All-Pro as the best defensive end in the NFL.


Mecklenburg was a fantastic football player and many forget just how great he once was.



8. Rod Smith


Rod Smith was the greatest undrafted wide receiver in NFL history.


Smith wasn't drafted, but signed by the Broncos in 1994 and it was one of the smartest moves the team ever made as he spent his entire 14-year career with the blue and orange.


Smith wasn't the fastest, or biggest, or quickest wide receiver in football, but he was so smart to know exactly how to get the most out of his body.


You could tell Smith was great from his first NFL catch, a last-second, desperation heave by Elway down the field for 43 yards that floated into Smith's mitts as he was hit by two Redskins defenders at the goal line.


Throughout the length of his long tenure in Denver, Rod Smith was a consummate professional, teaching younger receivers how to study, how to save their bodies and last as long as he did in the league.


Rod Smith's receptions (849), receiving yards (11,389) and touchdown receptions (68) are the most for any undrafted receiver ever, and their also all Denver Broncos' franchise highs. And in terms of NFL history, his receptions are 18th most, receiving yards are 23rd most and TDs receiving are good for 35th best all time.


Rod Smith was Denver's greatest receiver, one of the greatest in the history of the league.



9. Champ Bailey


The Champ enjoyed one extremely long run as the best shut-down corner in the NFL.


Champ Bailey has been the best corner in the NFL throughout the 2000s, he went to 10 straight Pro Bowls during the decade (a record for cornerbacks) and he was All-Pro from 2004-06.


2005 and 2006 were by far Bailey's best two seasons as a professional football player, he recorded 18 INTs, a forced fumble and three TDs in those two years alone.


His most memorable play was during the 2005 playoffs, as he picked off a Tom Brady pass in the endzone of INVESCO Field at Mile High, taking it back 98 yards before being pushed out at the Patriots' two yard line.


Bailey's been the Broncos' best player over the last decade and he's one of the all-time greats.



10. Tom Nalen


Tom Nalen was the anchor of the offensive line, the center that was their captain and spokesman.


In fact, Nalen was so respected by his teammates that he told the line they would no longer talk to the media at the Broncos' height.


Nalen played from 1994-2008, retiring due to a torn biceps muscle. During his career, he went to five Pro Bowls and blocked for six different 1,000 yard running backs.


Nalen was a nasty, intimidating and sometimes crazy center that had the toughness and intelligence to lead the Broncos' line for many years.



Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being the CSU Rams Examiner, Kurtzman is a Denver Nuggets and NBA Featured Columnist for, the Colorado/Utah Regional Correspondent for, a weekly contributor to, a contributor to writing on the Denver Broncos and a contributor to Blake Street Bulletin, part of ESPN's SweetSpot Blog Network.


Rich also manages K-Biz and Beezy, a Colorado-based rap group.


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