ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos prepare for the franchise's eighth Super Bowl appearance, Feb. 7 against the Carolina Panthers in Santa Clara, California, it's a good time to unveil a list of the top 10 players in Broncos history. After consulting several longtime players, coaches and other team officials, there were many tough calls. Here they are:
10. (tie) Cornerback Louis Wright and wide receiver Rod Smith: I cannot, and will not, leave either of these guys off the list. Plenty of folks in the NFL say Wright is deserving of a Hall of Fame spot, yet the 12-year Bronco has never even been a HOF finalist. Wright was a phenomenal player who affected how offenses played. Meanwhile, Smith retired as the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, a heartbeat player in a star-studded locker room for a two-time Super Bowl winner.
9. Safety Steve Atwater: A finalist for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2016, Atwater was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection when it meant a lot more than it does now in the days of declined invitations and injury replacements. Atwater played in 14 playoff games with the Broncos, and every offensive player who faced him wanted to know exactly where the hard-hitting safety was on the field.
8. Linebacker/defensive end Karl Mecklenberg: Yes, he deserves a slot in Canton as well. He was a Swiss Army-type of defender who could line up anywhere for defensive coordinator Joe Collier. Mecklenberg could rush, he could cover, and Collier has said he had no concerns lining up Mecklenberg at “seven spots in the same game."
7. Linebacker Randy Gradishar: There may be no player who stirs the emotion of Broncos fans when the Hall of Fame is the topic of conversation more than Gradishar, who is one of several defensive giants snubbed by the Hall. Gradishar is the Broncos’ all-time leader in tackles and never missed a game in his 10-year career.
6. Running back Floyd Little: The Hall of Famer (Class of ’10) was the franchise’s first star -- the first first-round pick signed by the team in the pre-merger days of pro football. Between 1967 and 1975, only O.J. Simpson rushed for more yardage than Little. He won the NFL’s rushing title in 1971. However, he never played in a postseason game because the Broncos didn’t make the playoffs until 1977.
5. Tight end Shannon Sharpe: The Hall of Famer (Class of ’11) played on both of the Broncos’ Super Bowl winners and was a four-time All-Pro selection. He played 12 of his 14 NFL seasons with the Broncos and led the team in catches for six straight seasons -- 1992-97.
4. Cornerback Champ Bailey: The future Hall of Famer came to the Broncos via trade in 2004. Coach Mike Shanahan traded running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for Bailey and a second-round draft pick. Bailey went on to play 10 of his 15 career seasons in Denver, including a 10-interception season in 2005, when he should have been the league’s defensive player of the year. He was a cornerstone player in a time of transition -- the Broncos’ 4-12 season in 2010 was certainly a low point -- but went to eight of his 12 career Pro Bowls with the Broncos.
3. Quarterback Peyton Manning: If Manning calls it a career after Super Bowl 50, he will have spent four seasons with the team. Should Manning be considered a "real" Bronco? If a guy is a major part of two Super Bowl trips in those four seasons, has piloted the league’s highest-scoring offense and has helped return the franchise to the kind of prominence owner Pat Bowlen wanted the Broncos to have, then he’s on the list. Manning is a Mount Rushmore player and will be in the Hall of Fame the minute the five-year waiting period ends.
2. Running back Terrell Davis: Most players on the 1997 and '98 Broncos would agree they wouldn’t have Super Bowl rings if it weren’t for Davis. A knee injury ended his career prematurely, but he is the greatest postseason player at his position in league history -- he averaged 142.5 rushing yards per game in the playoffs -- and he was both the league MVP and Super Bowl MVP in his career. He is a Hall of Fame finalist for the Class of 2016.
1. Quarterback John Elway. Hall of Famer (Class of 2004). He went to five Super Bowls as a player, won back-to-back titles in the last two seasons of his career and was named the MVP of the last game he played in -- Super Bowl XXXIII. In short, he is the most accomplished player in the franchise’s history and retired as the league’s winningest quarterback -- Brett Favre and Manning have since passed him. Elway also generated 83 percent of the team’s points during his career.
Honorable mention: Jason Elam, Simon Fletcher, Rich Jackson, Tom Jackson, Tom Nalen, Jake Plummer, Dennis Smith, Lionel Taylor, Billy Thompson, Rick Upchurch, Gary Zimmerman