With Floyd Little getting his long overdue induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past weekend, there has been much talk about what other former Broncos are deserving of entry into Canton. Here are five that deserve induction alongside John Elway, Gary Zimmerman and Little.
Honorable Mention: Randy Gradishar, Mark Schlereth and Jason Elam.
5. Steve Atwater
Talking to a few old school Bronco fans in preparation for this article, the consensus was "no one hit harder than Steve Atwater." And while Atwater's legendary hit of Chiefs' Pro Bowl running back Christian Okoye doesn't alone grant Atwater Hall of Fame status, it's a microcosm example of how feared Atwater was in the backfield during his 11-year playing career, 10 with the Broncos.
Beyond the bone-crushing hits, Atwater was named to eight Pro Bowls and the All Pro first team twice, in addition to winning two Super Bowls in Denver. The best safety in Broncos history deserves serious consideration in Canton, and yet Atwater hasn't even been named a semifinalist for the Hall since retiring over a decade ago.
4. Rod Smith
The unassuming, always professional Rod Smith may have gone unnoticed during an era of me-first receivers such as Terrell Owens, Andre Rison, Keyshawn Johnson, Michael Irvin and Randy Moss, but Smith was certainly in their class when it came to on-the-field accomplishments.
Retiring after 12 seasons (all with Denver), Smith currently stands 18th all time in receptions (ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Irvin, James Lofton and Charlie Joyner), 21st all time in receiving yards and 33rd in touchdown catches, tied with Hall of Famers Raymond Berry and Art Monk, and ahead -- again -- of Irvin. Not bad for a guy who was never drafted, eh?
Smith was also an integral member of the Broncos' back-to-back 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl championship teams, which begs the obvious question: if Irvin - with one more Super Bowl victory but fewer receptions and touchdowns than Smith - has already been voted into Canton, why not Smith? Maybe if Smith had worn mink coats, snorted cocaine and (allegedly) assaulted a few women along the way, he'd have a better a chance of getting into the Hall.
3. Tom Nalen
The Broncos' dominance in the running game throughout the latter 1990s and well into the 2000s can be traced directly to the team's offensive line, coached by Alex Gibbs and anchored by center Tom Nalen for 14 years. Weighing in at "only" 286 pounds, the 6-foot-3 Nalen was integral in forming one of the NFL's most potent and successful offenses in recent memory.
The results of Nalen's work spoke for themselves. Two Super Bowl victories. Five Pro Bowl appearances. Twice voted first team All-Pro. But you must go behind the stats and awards to assess Nalen's value. With Nalen at center, no-name running backs Mike Anderson (who?), Reuben Droughns (who?), Tatum Bell (who?) and Olandis Gary (who?) all became 1,000-yard rushers. And the more talented backs running behind Nalen's line absolutely thrived. Clinton Portis ran for over 1,500 yards in each of his two seasons as a Bronco and the best back of them all, Terrell Davis, famously ran for 2,008 yards in 1998 behind Nalen's offensive line.
Nalen wasn't just a great player, but a durable one as well. In 10 of his 14 seasons, Nalen started in all 16 games. He started in 15 games in another. Simply put, the Broncos don't win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998 without Tom Nalen starting at center.
2. Terrell Davis
While Tom Nalen, his offensive linemates and Gibbs deserve a lot of credit for the Broncos' running game prowess a decade ago, a remarkable, once-in-a-generation player of Terrell Davis's caliber would have been successful in any system. Overlooked by every team in the NFL for five rounds in the 1995 NFL Draft, Davis is surpassed only by Tom Brady as the biggest draft steal of the modern era (Davis was drafted 196th overall, Brady 199th five years later).
In a career cut tragically short due to an assortment of injuries, Davis may have had the four greatest seasons of any running back ever, running for over 1,000 yards for four consecutive seasons, over 1,500 yards in three of those seasons and performing his magnum opus in 1998 with an astounding 2,008 rushing yards ... the fourth-best single-season total in NFL history. While wearing Bronco orange and blue, Davis appeared in three Pro Bowls, was first-team All Pro three times, won two Super Bowls, was named Super Bowl MVP in 1997 (after running for 157 yards and scoring three touchdowns) and league MVP in 1998.
If that's not a Hall of Fame career, what is? Others are asking the same question as Davis has been a Hall of Fame semi-finalist for four consecutive years.
1. Shannon Sharpe
Speaking of draft steals, one of - if not the - greatest tight ends in NFL history slipped into the seventh round where the Broncos astutely snagged him in 1990. Sharpe would have an illustrious 14-year career, mostly in Denver with the exception of a two-year stint in Baltimore that netted him his third Super Bowl championship ring. And in addition to those three Super Bowl rings, Sharpe appeared in eight Pro Bowls and was an All Pro first team selection four times. Oh, and all Sharpe did was retire as the record holder for every reception category at his position, tight end.
And yet Sharpe, who should have been a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, has been passed over in each of his first two years of Hall of Fame eligibility. What gives?