One of the things that has been emphasized over the years in the National Football League is that the annual player selection draft is a vital building block to a successful organization.
This year’s Super bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, did a great job with a roster heavy on players selected in the draft.
The Denver Broncos have had that same type of success when we have had our greatest teams, and there is no question that the Broncos understand and respect that concept. This year the Broncos have the second pick in the entire draft and six selections overall. Three of the Broncos’ choices fall in the first 50, but later round selections can make a big impact as well.
In the American Football League years before the merger Denver had little chance of signing its top draft choices, who chose to go with the established National Football League teams that had taken them. So even though Broncos history shows that Denver’s selections included eventual Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen (the 1962 draft) and Dick Butkus (1965) as the team’s first selections, Denver had little chance financially of competing for their services.
After the merger was completed 1967 was the first year in which the AFL and NFL held a common draft. Since and including that 1967 draft, this year’s selection is the earliest the Broncos have ever been on the clock.
The Broncos had the sixth selection in that first common draft and took future Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little, who certainly was the cornerstone to early respectability for the Mile High City in pro football.
Here is a look at the top 10 first round selections in Broncos history, with a brief comment as to how the selection worked out for Denver.
1967 Syracuse three-time All American running back Floyd Little, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 for his illustrious Bronco career.
1972 Houston tight end Riley Odoms was the fifth pick in the draft, and he was a tremendous player, a Pro Bowl performer who started on the Broncos’ first Super Bowl team in 1977.
1973 Purdue running back Otis Armstrong was chosen number nine by Denver and he too was a key player on the 1977 Super Bowl team. Armstrong twice led the NFL in rushing.
1983 Northwestern tackle Chris Hinton was the fourth pick in the draft. A tremendous offensive lineman, it turned out that he was the one player the Baltimore Colts had high interest in besides John Elway, whom they chose and would eventually trade to Denver for Hinton, another first rounds choice, quarterback Mark Herrmann (now in the College Football Hall of Fame), and other considerations. So the 1983 first round pick never actually played for the Broncos, but he yielded John Elway in a trade, which is one of the great returns on a draft day investment in pro football history. Of course, John Elway’s career needs no explanation, and he was the first player to have played his entire career in Denver to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1991 Nebraska linebacker Mike Croel was chosen by Denver with the fourth pick in the draft. Croel was the NFL defensive rookie of the year in 1991 but his career quickly tapered off and he did not have much impact on longtime success for the franchise.
So the list above shows that since the merger Denver has selected in the top 10 five times. Two of the players who resulted from those picks (including Elway, whose trade came one week after the draft day conversations with the Colts began) are in the Hall of Fame.
Hinton, too, went on to be a Pro Bowl player for the Colts, by the way.
Two of the others played key roles on Denver’s first championship team and had lengthy Bronco careers, with Armstrong’s cut short by a neck injury.
And one of the five did not have a notable career, but anytime you succeed in player acquisition with a four-out-of-five ratio at that high level, it is very good.
On the other hand, it is absolutely true that while being a high draft choice does not guarantee success, so too does being a late selection mean that a young prospect cannot play.
In fact, the Broncos have had some great success with later round players and free agents. We will look at that group in a subsequent blog.