Earlier I did a blog on the history of the Denver Broncos’ draft choices when the team has had a selection among the first 10 players in the entire draft.
There is no question that the potential for greatness is there where the choices are made, but it is very important that fans remember how significant late picks are in building a team as well, in addition to completely undrafted free agent players.
Let’s take a quick look at a number of very significant Broncos who were drafted either in the final round of the draft, or signed as an undrafted free agent player.
This will not even include the players like Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe, taken late but not at the end of the draft process.
Key Bronco players who were chosen in the final round of the draft and went on to have length NFL careers include:
1983 Karl Mecklenburg became a Ring of Fame member and starred on three Super Bowl teams with his brilliant play, but he was the 310th player selected in the 1983 draft. I remember that we flew all the draftees out to talk with the press, and I watched this carefully-no member of the press approached Mecklenburg until I asked out local Associated Press rep to ask him a few questions, as a favor to me, to not hurt Meck’s feelings. Unsung and unknown coming in, but a great player.
1987 Tyrone Braxton was the second to the last player chosen in the entire draft, the 334th overall, and played on five championship teams with the Broncos, the back-to-back world championship teams and the three Super Bowl teams in the 1980′s as well. He was once described by his head coach as “too small, too light, too slow, but all he does every Sunday is make big plays.”
1994 Tom Nalen now is considered a legitimate candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a vital cog in Denver’s world championship teams. He was the 218th player drafted in 1995.
1995 Byron Chamberlain was a valuable receiver at the tight end position and eventually made the Pro Bowl at Minnesota after his Denver career ended. Byron was the 222nd player chosen in 1995.
Very impressive, but just the beginning, really, when you include players who actually were not drafted at all and then were signed as free agents. This is a long list, but some of the key free agent members are as follows-
All-time Bronco and Ring of Fame member Lionel Taylor was a free agent wide receiver who signed with Denver two weeks into the 1960 season while the Broncos were on an East Coast road swing. This was after he had been cut by the Chicago Bears as a free agent linebacker candidate. Think of the unlikely possibility that this linebacker cut by the Bears would catch 500 passes and have his name on the stadium wall in Denver.
Also in the 1960′s, the Broncos signed a St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals minor league third baseman who had played some college football at Memphis State. He was John Bramlett, and he was the top rookie defensive player in the American Football League in 1965 and he made the AFL all-star team in 1966. He was very tough, a very combative player. By the way, Bramlett, whose nickname was “Bull,” now is a minister and his autobiography is titled “Taming the Bull.”
Jack Dolbin was a wide receiver whose hands were as good as anybody’s, and he was a starting wide receiver here from 1975-79, including the Super Bowl season of 1977. You can read an entire chapter devoted to Dolbin in my book, “Game of My Life: Denver Broncos.”
Willie Brown was an undrafted free agent from Grambling in 1963 and played here through 1966, leading pro football in interceptions with nine in 1964, making the AFL all-star team. Of course, Willie Brown was subsequently traded to Oakland and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Steve Watson was an undrafted rookie wide receiver from Temple University who was an all-time fan favorite and Pro Bowl wide receiver here.
But Watson and Taylor were not even the top Bronco free agent signings at their own position. That honor has to go-it just has to go-to Rod Smith. Completely unheralded coming out of college, Smith became a vital cog in two world championship teams, catching a pivotal touchdown from John Elway in Super Bowl XXXIII, and he is pro football’s all-time leader as an undrafted free agent in receptions, reception yardage, and reception touchdowns. A genuine all-time great.
Undrafted local linebacker Rick Dennison signed with Denver after a stellar career at Colorado State University, and he played here from 1982-90, including all three Super Bowl teams in the decade of the 1990′s when Denver was the only AFC three-time Super Bowl participant.
How about Dave Studdard, signed by the Broncos as a free agent in 1979. He started at tackle from 1979-88, and “Studley” protected John Elway’s blind side in Super Bowls XXI and XXII.
Another undrafted free agent played on the same lie as Studdard-Keith Kartz was a free agent from the University of California who had a doubly long path to the NFL-he was a replacement player during the work stoppage of 1987 and continued to play for Denver through 1994, including two Super Bowl starts in Super Bowls XXII and XXIV.
Recognized as the most technically perfect nose tackle in the game at the height of his playing career, Greg Kragen was a tremendous player and Pro Bowl participant as a Bronco. One of the nicest, quietest guys one could ever meet, Kragen was an anchor in the defensive line from 1985-93 and was once described by rival head coach Marty Schottenheimer as “the best defensive tackle in pro football.”
Remember, everybody always says it takes an entire team to win a championship. Speaking from the inside, I can tell you that is absolutely true. All 53 guys contribute, and sometimes the undrafted free agent who barely made the team contributes THE PLAY that wins THE GAME.
It takes a team and organization working together to win, so never discount that late round draft choice or free agent just because you have not heard of him so far.
Remember, the future is what comes after “so far.”