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Derek Wolfe will be missed, but he’s not irreplaceable for the Broncos

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

When news broke on Saturday evening that Derek Wolfe was signing a one-year contract with the Ravens, there was an immediate reaction on Twitter and other social media. It was an outpouring of support for long-time Broncos defensive lineman.

Former teammates congratulated him on the new contract. Media members praised him for his professionalism. And fans thanked him for the way he played the game.

By and large, all of these kudos were justified. Wolfe spent eight years in Denver, building a lot of relationships during that time, so it stands to reason that he’d be treated well on his way out of town.

He was one of the last remaining members of the Super Bowl 50 team, a fraternity that will always earn him a special place in the hearts of Broncos Country. He played through all sorts of pain, showing a toughness that endears a player to the fan base. And he was always outspoken and honest, traits that make an athlete popular with those looking for a good soundbite.

But as the evening went on, the tributes started to get a little out of hand. Wolfe was referred to as a “great” player, a Broncos “legend” and a future Ring of Fame inductee. All three comments are a bit over the top.

A great player is someone who changes the game on a weekly basis. He’s someone that opposing coaches lie awake at night worrying about, staring at the ceiling in search of a way to deal with what awaits their team on the field.

Wolfe was never that type of player. During his eight seasons in Denver, he totaled 33.0 sacks; that’s an average of a little more than 4.0 per season, which is far from dominant production.

For the most part, Wolfe was a good player for the Broncos. At times, he was really good. But rarely, if ever, did he approach the level of greatness. That’s a category reserved for the likes of Von Miller, someone who truly changes the game from the defensive side of the ball.

It’s also hard to fathom that Wolfe will become a player remembered for generations, which is one way of defining a legend. At tailgate parties in 20 years, it seems unlikely that a grandfather will be regaling his grandson and granddaughter with tales of No. 95’s exploits in a Broncos uniform.

Those are the types of things reserved for players like Rich “Tombstone” Jackson, Randy Gradishar and Champ Bailey. They live in Broncos lore, as long-time fans still talk about the Jackson’s head slap, Gradishar’s uncanny ability to meet a running back in midair on short-yardage plays, and Bailey’s 100-yard interception return against Tom Brady in a playoff game.

Those stories don’t exist for Wolfe. What’s the legendary moment from his career? What’s the unforgettable skill that he brought to the field? What about his career in Denver will still conjure up memories decades down the road?

That’s not to diminish his contribution to the team; Wolfe was an invaluable part of some very good defenses. But to become a legend, there has to be something truly special about a player. It’s fair to say that wasn’t the case during the defensive lineman’s tenure in the Mile High City.

Yet some people still believe he’ll be enshrined in the team’s Ring of Fame someday. They believe he’ll be immortalized alongside the franchise’s all-time great players. This is perhaps the most-hyperbolic notion of all.

Quite simply, Wolfe doesn’t have the résumé to garner a spot on the façade at Empower Field at Mile High.

The defensive lineman leaves Denver with the seventh-most sacks in Broncos history. That sounds like an impressive feat, given that it’s in the top 10. But some context is necessary.

He’s tied with Maa Tanuvasa, who put up 33.0 sacks in two less seasons in Denver. No one considers Tanuvasa a Ring of Fame-worthy player, despite the fact that he won two rings in the late 1990s with the Broncos.

Wolfe is 19.5 sacks behind Rulon Jones, 30.5 away from Elvis Dumervil and 31.0 in back of Trevor Pryce. None of those three players are in the Ring of Fame, although all of them can make a case for induction.

In addition, Wolfe never earned a single Pro Bowl invite during his eight-year career in Denver. While selection to the NFL’s All-Star game isn’t the be-all, end-all, it does demonstrate a certain level of play; it calibrates a player’s performance against the rest of the league.

There are several former Broncos who earned multiple Pro Bowl invites while wearing the orange and blue who aren’t in the team’s Ring of Fame. Al Wilson tops the charts with five, followed by Riley Odoms, Ryan Clady and Trevor Pryce with four apiece. If they can’t crack the exclusive list, it seems unlikely that Wolfe will be able to do so.

Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Demaryius Thomas also went to four Pro Bowls as Broncos. From the crop of recent players who excelled in Denver, they’ll be ahead of Wolfe when it comes to waiting in line for a Ring of Fame spot.

All of this is probably going to be perceived by some as negative. They’ll see it as bashing someone who put in years of quality service. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s simply a reality check. It’s providing perspective on a player rather than simply being a cheerleader for them when their days with the franchise are over.

Derek Wolfe was a good player. He turned out to be a solid second-round pick, someone who contributed to the team for eight years.

That’s high praise, rather than hyperbole.