Broncos' best draft pick was 'The Franchise'

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are now, and have been for quite some time, what owner Pat Bowlen has always pushed them to be: relevant.

Bowlen, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease and stepped away from day-to-day operations of the team two years ago, has always wanted the Broncos at the front of the line, whether it was winning or being the team most willing to travel overseas for games or simply making sure each day his team was the leading topic of conversation among a fan base that has purchased every game-day ticket since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

In all, the franchise has been on eight Super Bowl trips -- seven of those since Bowlen purchased the team. During his tenure, there have been more title-game trips than losing seasons. So picking the best draft pick the team has ever made is a daunting task.

The team’s most storied player -- and its current top football decision-maker, John Elway -- was not a Broncos draft pick, since he arrived via a 1983 trade. To find the team's best draft pick, let's start with the team’s Ring of Fame members. There are many former draft picks in that group such as Terrell Davis, Steve Atwater, Karl Mecklenburg, Randy Gradishar, Louis Wright and Tom Jackson.

But then go to Canton, where the Broncos are grossly and inexplicably underrepresented in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Getting into the Hall is the game's highest individual honor. Of the four Broncos Hall of Famers, just two were drafted by Denver: Floyd Little and Shannon Sharpe.

Atwater, Davis and Gradishar have been finalists for the Hall.

Why Floyd Little is the best draft pick in Broncos’ history: Little, the sixth pick overall in the 1967 draft, carried the nickname of "The Franchise." He was the Broncos' first real star. Between 1967 and 1975, only O.J. Simpson rushed for more yards in pro football than Little. He never got to play in a postseason game for the Broncos, but in many ways, he did for the Broncos what Bowlen always tried to do when he arrived years later -- make the team relevant.

Honorable mention

Shannon Sharpe: Again, Canton is the tiebreaker and Sharpe is one of two players selected by the Broncos in the draft who played the majority of his career for the team and has been enshrined in Canton.

Terrell Davis: His former teammates have said that the Broncos don’t win the franchise’s first two Super Bowls without him. His career was shortened by a knee injury, but he is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and one of the league’s greatest postseason performers.

Randy Gradishar: He was the league’s defensive player of the year in 1978, was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and closed out his career as the team’s all-time leader in tackles. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2003 and 2008.

Karl Mecklenburg: He is the team’s best late-round find in the draft, given he was a 12th-round pick in the 1983 draft. He played for teams that won five division titles and went to three Super Bowls. Former defensive coordinator Joe Collier said he had no hesitation lining Mecklenburg up almost anywhere in the formation.

Louis Wright: Wright has long deserved a full Hall of Fame look, though he was never a finalist as a modern-era candidate and is now in the vast seniors pool. Wright was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and played on two Super bowl teams.

Steve Atwater: Atwater was a Hall of Fame finalist this past season. He started all 155 of his games with the Broncos. He was selected for seven Pro Bowls.