Wednesday March 14th, 2012

Dennis Smith was known as a fearsome hitter during his days with the Broncos.

As part of our offseason coverage, we're taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We'll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.

The No. 15 Pick: Dennis Smith, 1981, Broncos

His Credentials: Six-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time All Pro pick, 30 career interceptions, played all 14 NFL seasons with Denver

Others in Consideration: Jason Pierre-Paul (2010, Giants); Albert Haynesworth (2002, Titans); Deltha O'Neal (2000, Broncos); Anthony Miller (1988, Chargers); John L. Williams (1986, Seahawks)

With all due respect to the players selected at No. 15 overall since 1970, there's just no comparison between this spot in the draft and from whence we just came. The last four top picks: Randall McDaniel, Art Monk, Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, a run of four consecutive Hall of Famers.

Given those names, the drop-off at No. 15 overall is pretty severe.

There are just six total Pro Bowl bids shared amongst the 15th picks, with two of those belonging to Albert Haynesworth -- for what it's worth, Haynesworth may have soared to the top of the rankings here had he not completely fallen off the map in recent years.

Jason Pierre-Paul may wind up being the best of this bunch. In just two NFL seasons, he's already racked up 21.5 sacks and a Super Bowl win while establishing himself as one of the game's elite pass-rushers.

Pierre-Paul has a long way to go, however, to match the longevity of Dennis Smith's career. A 2001 inductee into the Broncos' Ring of Fame, Smith suited up with Denver for 14 seasons and his 184 games played ranks fourth all-time in franchise history.

Those numbers alone only go so far, but when you consider how Smith played the game, they stand out more.

"To be honest with you," former Denver coach and current Washington head man Mike Shanahan once said, "Dennis Smith is the hardest hitter I've ever been around. On any team. Bar none."

In fact, Smith might be the hardest hitter in NFL history. He and fellow safety Steve Atwater combined to give the Broncos one of the league's most-feared defensive backfields.

Smith made his first Pro Bowl in 1985, a season in which he recorded four sacks and three of his 30 career interceptions. Over the next eight years, he would get the Pro Bowl nod five more times, his last invite coming in 1993, Smith's 13th (and next-to-last) season in the league.

Smith worked his way into Denver's starting lineup as a rookie out of USC, then never relinquished his spot, except when injured. And, as that '93 Pro Bowl bid hints, he simply got better as he went -- he recorded a career-high five interception in his 12th season, 1992. There's not a bust waiting for Smith at the Hall of Fame, so it's hard for him to measure up to the Jerry Rices and Emmitt Smiths of the world. He still enjoyed a very productive and impactful NFL career. Just ask the receivers he laid out during his 14 seasons.

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