With a franchise as storied as the Denver Broncos, choosing the 10 best Broncos players ever for this kind of list is anything but an easy task. Of course, if you take a look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you might think much of the job is done for you. After all, 14 members of the Hall were part of the Bronco organization during their time in the game.
But it’s not as simple as that. One is an executive, Pat Bowlen, and several others are in for things they did for other teams. John Lynch and Peyton Manning were big contributors in Denver, but Lynch will always be known for his play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most football fans outside Colorado consider Manning synonymous with the Indianapolis Colts.
Meanwhile, almost nobody remembers that Tony Dorsett or Ty Law ever wore orange and blue.
Besides, the Hall hasn’t done the best job of recognizing famous Broncos players. Any Broncos fan old enough to remember Louis Wright could have a long conversation about why he belongs in the Hall of Fame. No Bronco made it to Canton before John Elway, so there are several Broncos who have never received the recognition they deserved.
This list isn’t long enough to fix that, but it’ll break down the best of the best at Mile High, just one month before the NFL draft 2023.
Best Broncos Players of All Time
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at those players who have made the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it’s through their on-field heroics, their leadership abilities, or their lasting legacies. So let’s dive into the list of the best Broncos players of all time and see who makes the cut.
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10. Randy Gradishar
Starting off our list of the greatest Broncos of all time is Randy Gradishar. When Denver finally started to win in the 1970s, Gradishar was one of the biggest reasons why. The Orange Crush defense made life a living nightmare for offenses, and Gradishar’s hits at linebacker were a big reason why. Over the course of his career, Gradishar recorded 2,049 tackles and 20 interceptions, blossoming in 1976 when the Broncos switched to a 3-4 defense.
As the captain in the middle, Gradishar made Denver’s goal-line defense one of the best in the league. The Broncos gave up just 148 points in 1977 on their way to a Super Bowl, and the next year, Gradishar was the consensus defensive player of the year. At the time of his retirement, nobody had more tackles than him.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 3, 2023
9. Louis Wright
Unless you know how the game was played in the 1970s, you don’t realize how valuable a player Louis Wright really was. Back then, corners had to do more than stop the pass; they also had to prove reliable tacklers who could handle a screen pass or a run to the outside. Wright did both and did both well for the Broncos, making him one of the best defenders of his era.
Teams didn’t run the ball to the left side against Denver, and for the most part, they didn’t throw there either. In this era, when a corner could control the field as well as Wright did, teams didn’t challenge that side of the field much at all. Instead, they would attack the weaker side of the field and try to pull off plays there whenever possible. Wright would have finished with far more than 26 interceptions had he played modern football.
Overall, Wright deservedly earns his place on our list of best Broncos players of all time.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 31, 2022
8. Floyd Little
Back in the 1960s, whenever anyone had anything nice to say about the Broncos, they were probably talking about Floyd Little. He gave the Broncos credibility in Denver at a time when the team was seriously considering relocation to Atlanta.
The Broncos had to expand Mile High Stadium to 50,000 seats by 1970 as a condition of the AFL-NFL merger, and Little’s running and receiving ability gave Denver fans enough reason to believe in the Broncos to agree to the expansion.
Little rushed for 6,323 yards and accumulated 2,418 receiving yards in his career and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 1969. Had the Broncos ever made the playoffs during his time in the NFL, he wouldn’t have waited as long as he did to reach Canton. As it was, he’s one of four players in Canton who made it without playing a playoff game. Despite that, it cannot be questioned that Floyd Little is one of the most famous Denver Broncos players in history.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) April 17, 2022
7. Steve Atwater
If you watched the Broncos in the 1990s, you knew exactly where opponents wanted to avoid: the middle of the field. That’s where Steve Atwater delivered punishing hits to anyone brave enough or foolish enough to challenge the Denver defense. Atwater could come up on a blitz to get to the quarterback just as easily as he could stop a bruising running back in their tracks.
Bring up Atwater, and the first image that likely comes to mind is his hit on Kansas City running back Christian Okoye, which knocked the powerful runner backward and served as notice that challenging Atwater was a fool’s errand. He made eight Pro Bowls in Denver and earned his spot in the Hall of Fame, making sure he is remembered as one of Denver Broncos best players ever.
Hall of Famer.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) August 8, 2021
6. Rod Smith
In sixth place on our list of best Broncos of all time is Rod Smith. He was one of the best and most underrated receivers Denver has ever seen. Smith went from an undrafted and unknown player to the Broncos’ team leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in his career. He’s also the all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns for any player who wasn’t drafted, showing just how much he shocked everyone as a pro.
He could have been even better if not for John Elway’s retirement in 1999. Smith kept catching passes as the Broncos kept rotating through quarterbacks in the 2000s, hauling in 100 in 2000 and a career-best 113 in 2001. Even without a top quarterback to get him the ball, Smith kept producing at a top level, making himself one of the best receivers to ever play in Denver, as well as one of the most famous Broncos players of all time.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) May 15, 2020
5. Gary Zimmerman
The left tackle is one of the most important jobs in the NFL, especially when your quarterback is John Elway. Zimmerman was the man responsible for keeping Elway upright and on the field in the late 1990s, one of the first free agents to become a key piece for the Broncos. Zimmerman served as the leader of the offensive line in Denver and allowed Elway to essentially play without fear, allowing him to be adept at both passing and running.
At the same time, he’s responsible for a rule change, as he started a tradition of the Broncos’ offensive line refusing to interact with the media because the rest of the Broncos followed his lead. The NFL outlawed that in 2007, and since that time, all players must interact with the press.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) August 23, 2019
4. Champ Bailey
Denver had its running back to replace Terrell Davis on its roster in Clinton Portis. But the Broncos knew that running backs were much easier to find than true shutdown cornerbacks, so they shipped Portis to Washington in exchange for Champ Bailey.
It proved one of the best trades the Broncos have ever made, as Bailey essentially took half the field away from opposing pass attacks. Right as the NFL was changing rules to make it easier for quarterbacks to dominate, Denver had the one thing the league couldn’t legislate out of the game.
Bailey notched 52 interceptions in his career and routinely took top receivers out of their game. In 2009, he didn’t allow a single touchdown to a receiver that was his responsibility.
Best CB of the 2000s? @champbailey locked it down. 🔒⬇️
Happy 44th birthday to first-ballot HOFer. pic.twitter.com/i86zpkhJ4K
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) June 22, 2022
3. Shannon Sharpe
The No. 2 player on this list was a victim of bad luck with injuries. Sharpe’s situation was the opposite, as the career-ending injury happened to his older brother Sterling and not him. Initially, Shannon was a forgettable wide receiver most notable for being Sterling’s younger brother. But when the Broncos converted him to tight end in 1992, Shannon took off.
Starting with the 1993 season, Sharpe would catch at least 60 passes in every year he played with Denver except his injury-limited 1999 season. For his career, he topped 10,000 receiving yards and scored 62 touchdowns, making him one of the first true matchup problem tight ends.
Even with those numbers, however, he considers himself the second-best player in his own family, a reminder that the Broncos were fortunate with injury luck in his case.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 27, 2023
2. Terrell Davis
Bittersweet memories abound with Davis, because some Denver fans have to think about what might have been. Could Davis have surpassed Emmitt Smith if he’d stayed healthy? Could the Broncos have possibly been even better if he’d never gotten hurt in 1999 and had Davis for the next seven to 10 seasons? Could the Broncos have won more than just two Super Bowls?
We’ll never know, but what we do know is that Davis proved nothing short of outstanding while he was on the field. Over four full seasons, Davis managed 56 touchdowns and topped 6,000 rushing yards. Over his first four seasons in the NFL, Davis’ lowest yards per carry was 4.5, a number that very few running backs even reach.
Davis’ vision and breakaway speed, plus the Broncos’ blocking schemes, made him an unbeatable matchup for opponents. When he was fully healthy, there might not have been a better back, hence why four full seasons were enough to get him to Canton.
Even with the problems that hindered his career, Terrell Davis is without a doubt one of the best Broncos players of all time.
32 days until 2023 #NFL Draft in Kansas City, MO. And # of @SuperBowl XXXII; #Broncos 31, #Packers 24, RB @Terrell_Davis MVP
Broncos end NFC’s 13-game Super Bowl winning streak@JulesForTheBlue @PfgVibe #NFL pic.twitter.com/p82RwiNZ1n
— Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) March 26, 2023
1. John Elway
John Elway tops our list of Denver Broncos best players ever. There’s no way it could be anybody else. Elway changed football in Denver and made the Broncos an AFC power for his entire career. Over the course of his career, Elway won 10 or more games eight times and consistently made the Broncos winners. In an era where completing more than 55 percent of your passes was outstanding, Elway regularly flirted with and exceeded that number and only got better with age, hitting 58 percent or more in five of his final six seasons.
Of course, what every Denver fan remembers are the final two seasons of Elway’s long career. The Broncos finally put everything together and brought their first and second Super Bowl titles home, beating the Packers in Super Bowl 32 and the Falcons in Super Bowl 33.
Elway might have been near the end at that point of his career, but he was still incredibly effective and could have lasted another season or two. But he was the rare athlete who could and did retire on top, giving Denver fans one of the greatest careers in NFL history.
Broncos QB 🧡🤍
John Elway Legacy Legends /50 $5 pic.twitter.com/kYTVk9eSPQ
— Southpaw Sports (@southpaw_rips) March 27, 2023
Credits on Featured Image: Jeffrey Beall