This is the week in which wide receivers are being reviewed in advance of the 2010 National Football League draft.
In taking a look at the Denver Broncos’ 51-year history of the position, most of the team’s success at wide receiver has come from trades and free agency.
The prime examples are Lionel Taylor, the first 100-catch player in a single season in pro football — Taylor was signed by Denver as a free agent two weeks into the 1960 campaign and went on to catch 92 passes in 12 games that year; Rod Smith, the leading undrafted wide receiver ever statistically in terms of receptions, reception yardage and reception touchdowns — he was signed by Denver after a sterling career at Missouri Southern, but then being completely passed over by all teams in the draft; and Steve Watson, a Pro Bowl receiver and all-time fan favorite who was signed as a free agent out of Temple University.
Another all-time fan favorite and like Smith a starter for our back-to-back world championships, Ed McCaffrey signed with Denver as a free agent after San Francisco’s 1994 world championship season.
So the draft has not been where the best wide receivers in Bronco history have been acquired, but there have been some characters and interesting stories along the way.
I thought it would be a fun to look at a draft choice at the wide receiver position with which fans are mostly unfamiliar, but which had a monumental impact on the position and Broncos history.
This story also is a reminder that the draft is just one means by which teams improve themselves, and it is a fluid one at that.
A team drafts a player, and sometimes he goes on to greatness as a member of a championship organization. Other times, his contribution, that is, the contribution of that selection, is made by a trade that has great impact.
Such was the case with the 1971 draft.
To that point, Denver had never in franchise history had a winning season. John Ralston was the head coach and general manager and he had added positive thinking to the Bronco culture, but the team was still a loser.
In the second round of the 1971 draft, Denver selected wide receiver Dwight Harrison, who had played his college football for the Javalinas (great nickname!) of Texas A & I.
The Broncos followed up that second-round pick by taking someone from an even smaller school in round four, using a pick which Denver had acquired from Boston and selecting a defensive end named Lyle Alzado from Yankton College. Nobody had ever heard of this guy.
The only reason Denver had was that during the previous year’s summer vacation period, Denver defensive line coach Stan Jones and his wife were on a driving vacation in the Dakotas when their car had a minor breakdown. While it was being repaired Jones wandered over to a nearly college and asked to look at a little film of the football team. He did not see any players that interested him from that school, but he did notice that in a game played against tiny Yankton College there was a wild-eyed and crazy defensive end who caught his attention on film.
So in the fourth round in 1971 the Broncos took a flyer on Alzado. I knew Lyle Alzado every well, and he had a free spirited personality that was capable of really giving a fellow player the business in the locker room.
So now we move into 1972, year two in Denver for both Alzado and Harrison. Each is considered a long term player by this point.
For whatever reason, Lou Saban, back in Buffalo after his five year stint with the Broncos, was disenchanted with former Bills number one draft choice Haven Moses. Moses was one of the smoothest receivers in the NFL, but Saban was calling around to see if he could make a deal. One of the deals he was interested in making was Moses to Denver for Harrison, whom he planned to convert to cornerback, presuming a trade could be made.
But Ralston liked Harrison, and had no interest in making the trade. Amazingly, that would change quickly.
Sometimes locker room hijinks can take a nasty turn, and so it happened that byplay between Alzado and Harrison escalated into a nasty exchange of words, and eventually, to some genuine physical threats involving the two young prospects.
Ralston quickly determined that the best solution would be to send one of them packing, and he immediately went back to his office, called Saban and asked if he was still interested in Moses for Harrison.
Lou was, the trade was made, and that is how Haven Moses came to Denver where he became part of the legendary M & M connection with quarterback Craig Morton, leading Denver to the promised land of Super Bowl XII in 1977.
And, of course, Alzado was a teammate of Moses on that legendary first championship team.
Now, in all likelihood the two young prospects might have patched up their testosterone-fueled grievances soon enough, but the timing was such that instead Moses came to Denver and Harrison became a fine cornerback who went on to play eight seasons as a fine defender for the Bills.
So the trade benefitted both players, and it just shows that sometimes a couple of selections with which a fan is unfamiliar can ultimately benefit a team in a way that would have seemed unfathomable at the moment of the draft.