Loyalists of the Denver Broncos believe there’s a prejudice against their team at the Hall of Fame.
They have a point.
The Broncos have been to eight Super Bowls yet they only have five players enshrined in Canton: Terrell Davis, John Elway, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe and Gary Zimmerman. Four skill players and a blocker. No defenders from a franchise that produced an “Orange Crush” defense that was among the league’s best in the 1970s.
Like the Broncos, the Oakland Raiders were a charter AFL franchise. Both teams have won three Lombardi Trophies and the Broncos went to three more Super Bowls than the Raiders. Yet the Raiders have nine more players (14) in the Hall of Fame than the Broncos.
So that’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll – who is the best Bronco not in the Hall of Fame. Denver loyalists will tell you there are plenty of good candidates – and we agree. Here are your options:
Steve Atwater, S. A first-team NFL all-decade selection for the 1990s. The thumper on a defense that helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Atwater was voted to eight Pro Bowls and was a two-time first-team all-pro. A former first-round draft pick, Atwater collected 1,356 and 24 interceptions in his 10-year career. He has been a Hall of Fame finalist once.
Randy Gradishar, ILB. The 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gradishar played 10 seasons and went to seven Pro Bowls — the most of any middle linebacker eligible for the Hall of Fame but not yet enshrined. He is a member of Ohio State’s all-century team and his college coach Woody Hayes called him, “the finest linebacker I ever coached.” Gradishar collected 200 or more tackles in six of his 10 NFL seasons and played in one Super Bowl. He has been a two-time Hall of Fame finalist.
Rich Jackson, DE. In the late 1960s, there was no better pass rusher in football than Jackson. He collected 10 sacks in 1968, 11 in 1969 and 10 more in 1970 before suffering a knee injury midway through the 1971. He was still voted to his fourth and final Pro Bowl that season and was a three-time first-team all-pro. His nickname was “Tombstone.” Why? “Tombstone is the termination of life,” Jackson explained. “The stone is the symbol of death and when you put the `tomb’ and the `stone’ together that’s the end of the road.” Jackson has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Karl Mecklenburg, LB. The Swiss army knife of defense. He played anywhere and everywhere in Denver’s front seven, from game to game and often from play to play. He lined up in his career at right and left end, nose tackle, right and left inside linebacker and right and left outside linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 scheme. Plus middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He went to six Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team all-pro. He collected 79 career sacks, including 13 in 1985. He has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Tom Nalen, C. The anchor of Denver’s offensive line for 13 seasons – seasons that produced a pair of NFL rushing champions and a pair of Lombardi Trophies. A seventh-round draft pick, Nalen went to five Pro Bowls – the most by any offensive lineman in franchise history — and blocked for 11 single-season 1,000-yard rushers. His 188 career starts rank second only to John Elway in franchise history. Nalen has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Dennis Smith, S. Another former first-round draft pick, Smith plated 14 seasons and teamed with Atwater for six seasons to give the Broncos one of the best safety combos in the history of football. He collected 1,171 tackles and 30 interceptions and went to six Pro Bowls. Smith posted career highs a career-high five sacks in 1983, five interceptions in 1991 and 120 tackles in 1992. He has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Lionel Taylor, WR. Taylor led all of pro football, the AFL and NFL, in receiving four consecutive seasons and five times total in the 1960s. Only Hall of Famer Don Hutson led football in receiving more times (eight) and more consecutive seasons (five). Taylor was the first receiver to catch 100 passes in a single season in 1961. He was a first-team all-pro four times and went to three AFL All-Star Games. Taylor has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Louis Wright, CB. An NFL all-decade selection from the 1970s. Wright played 12 seasons with the Denver Broncos and was a member of the Orange Crush defense that lost in the 1977 Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys. He intercepted 26 career passes and played in five Pro Bowls. He has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist. Wright has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.