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. 11-15.
15. Simon Fletcher | LB / DE | 1985-95
When Von Miller recorded a sack last December against the Browns, the pass rusher moved into first place on the Broncos all-time list. The linebacker moved 0.5 sacks ahead of the previous record holder, a player who got after the quarterback for 11 dazzling seasons in Denver – Simon Fletcher.
Early in his career, it didn’t appear as though the second-round pick out of Houston would do much of anything in the orange and blue. As a rookie in 1985, Fletcher contributed little, recording just one sack and 17 total tackles while playing sparingly. The next season, he didn’t see much more action, but his numbers did improve; that year, Fletcher had 5.5 to help the Broncos reach Super Bowl XXI.
But the linebacker didn’t really hit his stride until 1988. During his fourth season in the NFL, Fletcher blossomed, starting all 16 games and becoming one of the best pass rushers in the business. Across the next six years, few were better at harassing opposing quarterbacks.
From 1988-93, Fletcher started in all 96 games that the Broncos played; in those contests, he chalked up 75 sacks, a per-game pace that puts him on pace with some of the best to ever play in the NFL. Amazingly, the linebacker didn’t receive a single invite to the Pro Bowl, even when he posted a career-high 16.0 sacks and forcing five fumbles in 1992.
At the time, the franchise was appalled by the oversight; they couldn’t believe that Fletcher wasn’t receiving the recognition he deserved. In part, this was due to the fact that his position on the field was difficult to define. While technically listed as a linebacker on the roster, he often lined up more like a defensive end. In essence, he was the precursor to today’s “edge” rusher.
The ironic part of Denver’s complaints about Fletcher is that the organization essentially did the same thing after his retirement that they accused the league of doing during his playing days. It took years for Fletcher to finally be inducted into the team’s Ring of Fame, something that should’ve been a no-brainer for the franchise’s best pass rusher before a guy named Von Miller came along.
“What’s the saying, ‘Game knows game?’ As Von Miller was closing in on Fletcher’s team sack record, Von spoke highly of him and his game. When a player from this generation speaks so glowingly of someone, I know that player had to be legit.” – Mike Evans
14. Dennis Smith | S | 1981-94
Smith had a tough assignment when he arrived in Denver, having to replace an all-time legend in the Broncos defensive backfield in Billy Thompson. Throw in the fact that he was a first-round pick, from Southern California, and the pressure was on; people in the Mile High City were just waiting for him to fail.
He didn’t. In fact, he answered all of the naysayers by proving to be an upgrade over any safety in the history of the franchise. As good as players like Thompson, Goose Gonsoulin, Steve Foley and others had been, they didn’t possess the one trait that set Smith apart; he was a ferocious hitter.
This attribute helped transform the way the Broncos played defense. For nearly a decade, they had been a “cerebral” team under the guidance of defensive mastermind Joe Collier. Now, they were also a franchise that could dish out some punishment, in the same vein as some of the league’s all-time best defenses.
During the first half of his career, Smith patrolled the secondary alone, serving as the lone hitman. Along the way, he posted some impressive numbers, hauling in 15 interceptions, recording 13.0 sacks and racking up a ton of tackles; in fact, he led the league in tackles in 1983 when he chalked up 114, a eye-popping number for a safety. Along the way, he earned a pair of Pro Bowl invites.
In his final years in Denver, Smith had a partner in crime. When Steve Atwater arrived in 1989, the duo combined to form one of the most-intimidating safety pairings in NFL history. During their first five years together, Smith hauled in another 15 interceptions and earned four more Pro Bowl invites. Butch Cassidy benefited from having The Sundance Kid around.
During his 14 season in a Broncos uniform, Smith established himself as one of the best safeties to ever play the game. He’s sixth in franchise history in career interceptions (30), fifth in games played (184) and third in fumble recoveries (17). Not surprisingly, he’s a member of the team’s Ring of Fame.
“When you look at safeties in Denver, you want to model yourself after a couple of players. Dennis Smith is high on that list.” – Nick Ferguson
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
13. Demaryius Thomas | WR | 2010-18
The combination of size and speed that Thomas brought to the field is what makes him the greatest wide receiver in Broncos history. He had the wheels to pull away from defenders, while also possessing the frame to outmuscle cornerbacks for the football; as a result, he was a difficult match-up every single Sunday for opposing defenses.
No moment highlights these attributes than what was arguably the most-memorable play of Thomas’ career. During the Wild Card Playoff against the Steelers in January 2012, the wideout hauled in a short crossing route from quarterback Tim Tebow, stiff-armed Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor and then outran everyone to the end zone for a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown reception.
That play had it all. He gave his quarterback a big target. He had the strength to shed would-be tacklers. And he had the speed to leave defensive backs in the dust. Those traits were on display during each of the seven-plus seasons in which Thomas wore a Broncos uniform. And they’re a big reason why he posted monster numbers during his time in Denver.
From 2012-17, the wideout was the most-prolific pass catcher in franchise history. During that timeframe, he averaged 96 receptions, 1,303 yards and 8.5 touchdowns. Yes, he was the beneficiary of Peyton Manning being in Denver, but more than half of Thomas’ career saw him catching passes from the likes of Kyle Orton, Tebow, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum. In other words, he could produce no matter who was behind center.
When he was traded to Houston midway through the 2018 season, Thomas was second in franchise history in receiving yards (9,055) and touchdown receptions (60), third in receptions (6) and second in yards per game (72.4).
Thomas was a threat to score from anywhere on the field, with the ability to turn any type of play into a touchdown. That’s what made him a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, more so than any wideout in Broncos history.
“Fast. Big. He could flat out do it all. The thing that stood out to me was that he was a great route runner.” – Brandon Stokley
12. Steve Atwater | S | 1989-98
When it comes to the defining moment of Atwater’s career, most people will gravitate toward a play that has been seen over and over thanks to NFL Films. It’s a signature play in league history.
For a “Monday Night Football” match-up between the Broncos and Chiefs in 1990, the hard-hitting, second-year safety was mic’d up for a showdown with Kansas City’s bruising running back, Christian Okoye. No one had been able to slow down “The Nigerian Nightmare” up until that point, something that came to an end in one classic moment.
Okoye took a handoff, ran toward the line of scrimmage and was met by Atwater. The safety knocked the runner backwards, generating oohs and aahs from teammates and fans alike. It was the football equivalent of Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, as Okoye was never the same player after that hit.
That came two games into Atwater’s second season in Denver. But his other defining moment came in the final game of his second-to-last season with the team. With 36 seconds to play in Super Bowl XXXII, and the Broncos clinging to a 31-24 lead over the Packers, Atwater threw caution to the wind in order to break up Brett Favre’s third-down pass; the safety launched himself into intended receiver Robert Brooks, knocking out the Green Bay wideout, teammate Randy Hilliard and himself in the process. It was quintessential Atwater, doing everything he had to in order to make the play, typically via a big hit.
Throughout his time in Denver, the safety made that kind of an impact. As a rookie, he helped the Broncos become the No. 1 defense in the NFL, powering them to their third Super Bowl appearance in four years. And during his last two seasons in the Mile High City, he was part of an opportunistic defense that helped the team win back-to-back championships.
It’s all part of a résumé that is worthy of induction in Canton. During his 10 years in a Broncos uniform, Atwater was selected to eight Pro Bowls, named first-team All-Pro twice and selected to the first-team All-1990s squad. He’s a Ring of Fame member, but deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well.
“An iconic player. I remember sitting in my room, watching that ‘Monday Night Football’ game and that hit transformed me.” – Nick Ferguson
11. Karl Mecklenburg | LB / DE | 1983-94
Few players in Broncos history have been more versatile than Mecklenburg. During his 12-year career in Denver, he lined up at seven different positions on defense, playing everywhere on the d-line and each linebacker position.
He was a jack-of-all-trades who gave Joe Collier, and then Wade Phillips, all kind of options, as the Broncos defensive coordinators moved him from play to play to cause confusion and wreck havoc. And by and large, it worked to perfection, as Denver’s defense was a key ingredient in leading the team to three Super Bowl appearances during Mecklenburg’s tenure.
That said, it initially took some time for Collier to figure out how to put the linebacker out of Minnesota to the best use. Not blessed with blazing speed or exceptional size, Mecklenburg was a bit of a “tweener,” meaning most thought he wasn’t fast enough to play linebacker or big enough to play in the trenches. It’s the main reason why he fell to the 12th round of the 1983 NFL Draft.
In 1984, however, it finally started to fall in place. The Broncos lined Mecklenburg up at various positions, allowing him to pick off a pair of passes and record 7.0 sacks as a backup player. He also delivered a crushing hit on Raiders running back Marcus Allen that got everyone’s attention; the moment earned a mention in that week’s Sports Illustrated, as it helped propel Denver to a crucial win in a battle for supremacy in the AFC West.
By the next season, Mecklenburg blossomed into a full-fledged star. As more of an every-down player, the linebacker posted a career-high 13.0 sacks and forced five fumbles, earning his first Pro Bowl invite and first-team All-Pro honors. It was the start of a great run, where Mecklenburg was a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, putting him in rarified air amongst Broncos defensive players.
Mecklenburg’s career numbers are staggering. He’s third on the franchise’s all-time list for sacks (73), forced fumbles (16) and fumble recoveries (14). He’s also second in solo tackles (1,152) and had five interceptions during his career. For the type of all-around greatness, Mecklenburg was selected to the team’s Ring of Fame. He also should be a legitimate consideration for enshrinement in Canton.
“A player ahead of his time. He played multiple positions. In today’s game, coaches would use him all over the field. Versatile. Tough. Tremendous teammate and leader. Also, one of the greatest Broncos of all-time when it comes to giving back to the Denver and Colorado communities.” – Mike Evans
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
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- Brandon Marshall on the current state of the Broncos, his NFL future
- 104.3 The Fan / ESPN Denver 1600 play-by-play: Sept. 20-23