On September 9, 1960, the Broncos played in the upstart American Football League’s first-ever game, beating the Patriots 13-10 in Boston. On September 9, 2019, Denver will kick off the 60th season in franchise history when they travel to Oakland to take another of the AFL’s original teams, the Raiders.
Sixty seasons. Starting in 1960. It’s all too symmetrical and perfect not to celebrate.
From that first season through today, thousands of players have donned the orange and blue (and even the brown and yellow). Plenty came and went, having forgettable careers in the Mile High City. But a select few stood out. And a handful of Broncos became legends, in this town and beyond.
Who falls into that category? In the coming weeks, 1043TheFan.com will count down the 60 greatest players in Broncos history.
It continues today, with Nos. 46-50.
50. Emmanuel Sanders | WR | 2014-Present
During his first five seasons in a Broncos uniform, Sanders has been a prolific wide receiving, hauling in 374 passes for 4,994 yards and 26 touchdowns during that time. If he never played another down in orange and blue, he’d already go down as one of the top-10 pass catchers in franchise history.
Not surprisingly, Sanders was at his best when Peyton Manning was behind center. In 2014, he earned the first Pro Bowl invite of his career with 101 catches for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns, all of which were personal bests in a single season. The following year, he helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl by snaring 76 passes for 1,135, proving in the process that he could make the tough catches to keep the chains moving.
In the years since, Sanders has been the lone big-play threat in an anemic offense. Even with Trevor Siemian as his quarterback, he was able to crack the 1,000-yard plateau and earn another trip to the Pro Bowl. And last season, the Broncos were pulling out all the stops to get the ball into his hands, evidenced by the fact that he also ran for and threw a touchdown in an effort to spark the offense.
While at times embodying the “diva” persona on modern NFL wide receivers, via off-field issues and ill-advised celebration penalties, Sanders is much more willing to do the dirty work than people think. As a result, he remains the engine to the Broncos offense.
“Broncos Country will always favor those who are champions. There is no Super Bowl 50 without Sanders’ heart-and-soul efforts. He will be remembered for laying his body on the line game in and game out.” – DMac
49. Jake Plummer | QB | 2003-06
Arguably the third-best quarterback in franchise history, Plummer was a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s offense. As a result, his teams won a lot of games during his three-plus seasons as the starter in Denver, as Plummer posted a glossy 39-15 record with the club.
Unfortunately, that success didn’t translate to the playoffs, where Plummer was a disappointing 1-3 at the helm. The final loss, to the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, ultimately got him replaced in Denver. During the offseason, Shanahan spent a first-round pick on quarterback Jay Cutler, making it a matter of time before a change was made behind center.
In hindsight, everyone sees the move as a mistake. While his numbers weren’t dazzling, only eclipsing the 20-touchdown plateau once during his tenure in the Mile High City, Plummer had the intangibles that made him an effective quarterback. His ability to execute Shanahan’s signature “waggle” play was second to none, while his leadership skills were vastly underrated; teammates loved playing alongside him.
Plummer will forever go down as a prime example of people not appreciating what they had at the time. Shanahan certainly didn’t, nor did the fans. The quarterback is much more popular in Denver now than he was during his playing days, when he was unfairly criticized for everything from left-handed throws to his choice of automobile.
“Fun guy who played fun football. Damn that Jay Cutler!” – Tom Nalen
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
48. Tyrone Braxton | CB / S | 1987-93, 1995-99
Braxton’s career in Denver, which totaled 12 seasons split apart by a one-year stint with the Dolphins in 1994, is a unique tale of two totally different experiences. But each time, one thing remained consistent – “Chicken” was a part of winning football teams.
Little was expected of Braxton when he arrived in Denver. After all, he was a 12th round pick out of North Dakota State; that typically translates into being little more than a “camp body.” But he made the team as a rookie, played 16 games in year two and was a full-time starter by 1989. That year, he was an integral part of a top-rated Broncos defense that helped the team reach their third Super Bowl in four years, as he posted six interceptions and two fumble recoveries while starting at cornerback.
After seven seasons in Denver, and in part because of a knee injury that slowed him, the Broncos decided to part ways prior to the ’94 season. Braxton spent one lost season as a backup in Miami before returning to the Mile High City when Mike Shanahan was hired as Denver’s head coach.
During his second tour of duty with the Broncos, Braxton made the switch to safety, playing alongside future Ring of Fame member Steve Atwater. And he excelled at the new position. In 1996, he led the NFL with nine interceptions, earning his first and only Pro Bowl as a result. And in ’97 and ’98, he was a part of an opportunistic defense that helped Denver win back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Braxton retired after the 1999 season after playing 165 games in the orange and blue. He’s tied with Champ Bailey for fourth on the Broncos all-time interceptions list.
47. Louis Wright | CB | 1975-86
The tricky thing about evaluating Louis Wright’s career is that statistics don’t accurately reflect the level of play that he achieved throughout his 12 years in Denver. From a strictly numbers standpoint, there’s nothing truly eye-popping about his days as a Bronco.
But for those who watched Wright play, or lined up alongside of him, there was no doubt about his greatness. He was a shutdown corner before the term was en vogue, a player defensive coordinator Joe Collier could line up on the left side and not have to worry about rotating coverages or providing help; Wright took care of his territory.
After being selected in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft, Wright quickly became a starter in Denver, earning a spot on the league’s All-Rookie team that season. By ’77, when the Broncos were fielding one of the best defenses in NFL history, he was earning Pro Bowl honors. And by ’78 and ’79, Wright was performing at a first-team All-Pro level, putting him among the best cornerbacks of the era.
In the early 1980s, the cornerback battled through some injury-shortened seasons. But he returned to a Pro Bowl level in 1983, as the entire franchise seemed rejuvenated by the addition of rookie quarterback John Elway to the mix. Two year later, at the age of 32, Wright earned his fifth and final invite to Honolulu, a testament to his ability to play at a high level throughout his illustrious career.
Denver’s loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XXI was the cornerback’s final game in a Broncos uniform, capping a career that saw him play 166 games in orange and blue, pick off 26 passes and score three defensive touchdowns. Wright is a member of the team’s Ring of Fame.
46. Julius Thomas | TE | 2011-14
During his first two seasons in Denver, Thomas hardly saw the field. After playing four seasons on the Portland State basketball team in college, as well as one year of football, the Broncos made him a fourth-round pick in 2011, knowing that he’d be a project. The teams gamble paid off.
In 2013, Thomas became the Broncos starting tight end, despite having a grand total of one catch in his career. It didn’t take long for him to pay dividends. In the season opener against the Ravens, Thomas hauled in a pair of touchdown passes from Peyton Manning, two of the seven the quarterback threw on that historic night.
And that was just the beginning. On the season, Thomas hauled in 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, making him one of Manning’s favorite targets, especially near the goal line. He was an integral part of the greatest passing offense in NFL history, helping Denver reach Super Bowl XLVIII.
The next season, Thomas was limited a bit by injury, only grabbing 43 passes for 489 yards. But he still managed to find the end zone a dozen times, giving him a total of 24 touchdown catches in 24 starts at tight end. That kind of prolific production helped him earn back-to-back Pro Bowl nods.
Prior to the 2015 season, however, the Broncos decided to let Thomas walk via free agency, convinced they could replace his production with a committee of tight ends who would thrive playing with Manning. That never really materialized, although Denver did go on to win Super Bowl 50 despite not having a go-to tight end.
Four years later, the Broncos are still trying to find a replacement for Thomas. Noah Fant is just the latest to attempt to fill the shoes of one of the best pass-catching tight ends in franchise history.
“I know plenty of people chafed at his lack of toughness and unwillingness to throw a block or two. All I know is the man flat out caught touchdown passes. He was a certifiable red-zone playmaker. Until another tight end comes along, Thomas remains the most recent gold standard when it comes to the Broncos having a playmaking, matchup nightmare tight end.” – Mike Evans
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE