The recently concluded 2009 National Football League Draft found the Denver Broncos adding 10 new players to the team’s roster, increasing the talent level and adding to the level of competition at all positions.
But people are mistaken if they believe that the draft was the end all — the last step to adding players to Denver’s or any other team’s roster for the coming year.
The most aggressive team in free agency this year was Denver, and the Broncos jumped into the college free agent pool in a big way as well, signing 17 undrafted players in the days immediately following the draft.
These young men will get just a few lines of press in the major newspapers, their signings being perceived as far less significant than the draft choices.
However, players come from a lot of places, and building a roster never ends.
There have been a host of notable players signed by the Broncos as free agents over the years, and just because we have not heard of someone now does not mean it will always be that way.
Steve Watson was one of the best wide receivers in team history, a Pro Bowl player who was signed out of Temple University after being undrafted in 1979.
Barefoot placekicker Rich Karlis kicked for the Broncos in Super Bowls XXI and XXII after being signed as an undrafted played in 1982.
Fellow placekicker David Treadwell came out of Clemson as an undrafted player and his field goals helped put the Broncos in Super Bowl XIV.
Dave Studdard was signed off the street and became a starting tackle who protected Denver quarterbacks from 1979 through 1988.
The 1977 Orange Crush Super Bowl team featured undrafted defensive starters Bob Swenson and Joe Rizzo at linebacker, while safety Steve Foley had been a college quarterback who never played a down of defense at Tulane.
Lionel Taylor had over 500 pass receptions as a wide receiver on his way to a spot in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, but that happened after he had been cut by the Chicago Bears — where he did not pass his tryout as a linebacker!
Fellow Ring of Fame member Karl Mecklenburg was the Broncos’ 12th round draft choice in 1983, the last player chosen by Denver.
Jack Dolbin was working as a security guard in a shopping mall when he got a call from Denver offering him a chance to sign as a free agent, and Dolbin went on to start in Super Bowl XII and play five years as a Bronco.
Keith Kartz was an undrafted free agent who only got his chance due to the player strike of 1987, but then did not relinquish his starting job on the offensive line until 1994. One of the toughest players in Bronco history, Kartz and Studdard gave Denver two free agent offensive line starters on two separate Super Bowl teams.
Of course, most people know that Terrell Davis, one of the greatest running backs in history, was the 196th player chosen in the 1995 draft.
They know that now, because they know who Terrell Davis is now, and they know his exploits now–but there was a time when no one knew.
And that is where the cycle of time and talent puts us at this moment.
The 2009 names are just names to most fans.
But the players will come to Denver, they will put on the same uniform in the same locker room as all the other players, and then they will take the field and become a part of a great meritocracy. The best players play. No matter where someone was drafted, no matter his size or his money, he has a chance to compete on an equal playing field, in Denver and in the other 31 camps.
The best players play.
In 1963 the American Football League draft lasted for 29 rounds. That’s right, 29.
And in those 29 rounds the Broncos selected 33 total players.
But they did not draft Willie Brown. The Broncos signed cornerback Willie Brown as a free agent out of Grambling University. Willie Brown wore number 24 at cornerback for the Broncos before Champ Bailey did, played here from 1963 through 1966, and had 15 interceptions in four years with Denver. In 1964 he had nine interceptions and was named All-AFL.
In 1967 Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he played in 205 games, chosen for three AFL All-Star games and for four NFL Pro Bowls. One of only two players in NFL history to have intercepted at least one pass in 16 straight seasons, he had 54 interceptions for his pro career and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984. Brown is one of four players to have played for the Broncos who have been elected into the Hall of Fame.
But he was never drafted by Denver.
So many of the names are not well known today. But some of them will become very famous indeed.
It is important for people who think they know everything today to remember, sometimes it is what you learn after you know it all that means the most.