The Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will soon make their final decision on the players who were great enough to be immortalized in Canton, OH. For Denver Broncos fans, it has been a long wait to have proper representation in those hallowed halls for a team with such a winning history.
The voters have passed over deserving Broncos' greats year after year. Recently, though, we have seen some amends made to rectify this, with Terrell Davis, Champ Bailey and Pat Bowlen getting the nod.
However, there are still deserving Broncos who have been waiting far too long. Here are the top-10 Broncos most-deserving of enshrinement in descending order of priority.
10. Goose Gonsoulin | S | 1960-67
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is not specific to the National Football League, hence Pro Football. However, players from the American Football League tend to be overlooked. This may be the case for Gonsoulin. Or maybe when voters hear the name they think of Goslin, the Hall of Fame baseball player and move on. It is time to resurrect Gonsoulin’s candidacy for enshrinement in Canton.
Gonsoulin played all but his last season in the AFL for the Broncos. In his eight seasons, he was one of the greats at safety and is the all-time interception leader of the AFL with 40. At the time of his retirement, his 46 career interceptions tied him for sixth-best of the entire NFL. He was a ball-hawk and in each of his first six seasons, he had no less than six picks.
Gonsoulin was selected to the All-Time AFL team, voted as an AFL All-Star five times, and was an All-Pro four times. He was a bonafide star on a team with little to no supporting cast.
As time marches on, the memories of the AFL and the great players who stepped onto the gridiron fade away. There are only eight players in the Hall of Fame, who spent more than half their career in the AFL. It is time to start making a case for more and that can start with Gonsoulin.
9. Lionel Taylor | WR | 1959-68
The longer a player waits to get into the Hall, the less likely they are to get in. Maybe voters and fans just forget about them, therefore there is not enough buzz left to generate the support needed to push them over the edge.
Taylor falls into that category. He is a great player, who has been forgotten about because he played so long ago. His last season was 1968, but his greatness lasted much longer. He was the first player to record 100 receptions in a season. That feat is accomplished frequently in today’s pass-happy NFL, but in 1961, it was a rarity.
Even rarer was in 1980, Taylor’s 100 receptions season still placed him in possession of the No. 2 and No. 6 ranking in the top-15 reception seasons all-time. 12 years after his retirement, his greatness still stood the test of time. Keep in mind that he played during a time when there were only 14-game seasons. Only one other player topped 100 receptions in a season until the league went to a 16-game schedule.
In his seven seasons with the Broncos, Taylor averaged 76 receptions per year and in five of those seasons, he led the league. He led the AFL in receptions for the first four seasons of its existence. At the time of his retirement he was ranked No. 2 in career receptions with 567, only behind Hof-er Raymond Berry. Not bad for a player who played his first pro season as a linebacker.
Taylor was recognized during his playing days with four first-team All-AFL selections, five in total (including second-team), and three All-Star selections. He was a player ahead of his time. He ushered in the new brand of professional football and paved the way for the new era of receiver.
Voters need to dig back into history and remember those players long retired that deserve to be recognized as great. Taylor fits that bill.
8. Dan Reeves | HC | 1972-2003
As a Player: Dallas Cowboys | 1965-72
Selecting coaches for induction into the Hall over players seems a misappropriation of the few slots available for entry into Canton. The players have and always will be what makes the NFL great.
They leave their blood, sweat and at times body parts on the field while coaches are safe on the sidelines. That being said, there are some coaches that have achieved a level of excellence high enough to deserve being in those hallowed halls. One of those coaches is Reeves.
As a coach, Reeves has been to a total of seven Super Bowls, winning one as an assistant coach with the Cowboys. As a head coach, he has taken two different teams to the Super Bowl — the Broncos (three appearances) and the Atlanta Falcons (one).
During his stint with the Broncos, the team he had the longest tenure with, he guided his team to three Super Bowls in a four-year period. He won the Coach of the Year award twice and stands in eighth place all-time for victories as a head coach.
He dedicated 38 years of his life to the NFL and did so at a high level. Those are remarkable credentials.
There are definitely those who are unwilling to say he deserves induction into Canton and emphasize the four Super Bowl losses as a head coach. Unfortunately, his teams were significantly outmatched in the talent category.
Sometimes talent is too much to overcome by great coaching alone when on the biggest stage. Many coaches never even sniff the big dance let alone get a team to four.
Reeves' ability to get to the Super Bowl is incredible. He has made a total of nine trips in his career as a coach and player. He would enter the Hall as a coach, but his entire body of work should be taken into account.
Another point to make is that Reeves has tallied more victories than Bill Parcells, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. Parcells is credited with turning around losing franchises as one of his claims to fame.
Reeves also can make a stake to that claim. He took over a New York Giants team that was 6-10 the previous season and the very next season took them to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
Upon taking over the Falcons, a notoriously horrible franchise with losing seasons stacked upon losing seasons, he was saddled with a team that was 3-13 the season prior. Within two years had them in the Super Bowl.
Even though coaches should be inducted into the Hall of Fame judiciously, Reeves has earned the right to be in Canton.
7. Rod Smith | WR | 1994-2007
Smith is the greatest undrafted wide receiver of all time. People will argue that achieving what he did as an undrafted rookie isn’t enough to get him inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The same people will also argue that Smith's undrafted status shouldn’t even be considered. While I agree with the first statement, because he has more than enough merits to get in, I don’t agree with the second. His undrafted status should be taken into account when voters decide his fate.
A drafted player is given many opportunities to take the field early and often. On the other hand, a player who goes undrafted has to fight to make the team in the first place and must go above and beyond to prove himself ready to play on the gridiron.
Smith came into the league in 1994 and didn’t see the field until late September 1995. He was not given many opportunities (although he seized them with both hands) that year, even though his first catch was a game-winning touchdown.
What this ramble is trying to point out is; had Smith been drafted he would have seen the field faster and started compiling statistics, which voters love, much sooner. Instead of six catches in ’95 and 16 in ’96, maybe it would have looked more like 30 in ’94, 60 in ’95 and then 70 in ’96.
Smith had the talent to create those types of numbers. That would have pushed his career over the 1,000-reception mark and easily past the 13,000-yard mark.
Putting that aside, Smith still has the credentials to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He has two Super Bowl victories, went to the Pro Bowl three times, and was selected as an All-Pro twice.
His 152 yards receiving in Super Bowl XXXIII was fourth-best in history at the time. He also had eight seasons of at least 1,000 yards receiving.
For his career, Smith had 849 receptions, 11,389 yards receiving and 68 touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, his reception total ranked him No. 14 all-time and his receiving yards ranked him No. 9 all-time.
Most of the receivers ahead of Smith have been inducted into Canton. The vast majority of his career was spent in a run-first offense, which makes these statistical marks even more compelling.
Furthermore, his receiving yards are the most by any undrafted player. Ever. No other undrafted player has even reached the 10,000 yards receiving mark.
Smith has the numbers and an incredible story to go with them. He went undrafted and struggled to make the team, only to become the most decorated receiver in Broncos' history.
Bronze busts in the Hall of Fame are usually of the person’s head, but if he does make in, his should include his chest so that his heart is immortalized in Canton. Smith played with his heart and soul every game.
He played every down like it was his last and it showed on the field. His heart alone should warrant induction, but his career accolades are more than enough.
6. Rick Upchurch | WR | 1975-83
Special teams players rarely get enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It is even harder for those players who were listed on the roster at one position, but were typically only used as third-phase 'specialists' because that was their forte.
It is understandable that they get passed over because they are only on the field for a few plays per game. However, the Hall of Fame is for players who were great on the field, regardless of how many offensive snaps they received.
The player who was considered the greatest returner of all-time until very recent history, should warrant entry into Canton. His name is Rick Upchurch.
Upchurch was listed as a wide receiver, but he made his living returning kicks and punts. His reputation as the best punt returner in the history of the NFL is well-earned.
Many lists of the top returners of all-time include his name, even today. What he did during his nine years in the NFL warrant his name being on those lists.
Upchurch returned 248 punts for 3,008 yards. He returned 95 kickoffs for 2,355 yards. His eight punt returns for touchdowns tied the all-time record and was not topped until 1997.
His four punt return touchdowns in a single season mark has been tied, but not bested. For his career, he tallied 10,081 all-purpose yards and has held 11 Broncos team records.
Upchurch was an All-Pro five times and went to four Pro Bowls. He also was selected to both the 1970s All-Decade Team and the 1980s All-Decade team.
Those voters recognized his greatness during his playing days. The Hall of Fame voters should take notice as well.
Another special teams player who has the distinction of being selected to two All-Decade teams, Morten Anderson, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017. Upchurch’s ability as a returner impacted games and contributed to team wins. The Hall of Fame voters should recognize how important he was to the Broncos.
During the Broncos' 1977 Super Bowl run, the Orange Crush defense got all the recognition and rightfully so, but Upchurch was a significant contributor during that season. He contributed 1,373 yards and four touchdowns.
His play in Super Bowl XXII goes largely unnoticed. The Broncos offense coughed the ball up eight times, making it nearly impossible for the team to pull out a victory, but Upchurch did his part to get that victory.
He contributed 116 yards in punt and kick returns, which isn’t far off from the 156 yards of total yards the offense could muster that dreadful day. His 67-yard kick return set up the Broncos only touchdown.
If the Hall of Fame voters decide to select special teams returners for enshrinement, Upchurch should be the first. His name must be the one that ushers in others because he was considered the greatest for several decades.
To include others without having him go first would be a travesty.
5. Tom Nalen | C | 1994-2008
Selecting offensive linemen for the Hall of Fame is not as simple as selecting quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers. Those skill positions can be measured by statistics, but there aren’t any true statistics for offensive linemen.
This adds to the difficulty in making a case for why a guy like Nalen deserves to have his bronze bust put in those hallowed halls. However, there is still some very compelling evidence.
Nalen is arguably the most technically sound center of all-time. His playing weight was listed at 286 pounds, but many times he looked more like 275 or less. That weight would have been fine in the 1970s or even the 1980s when defensive tackles were not huge, but Nalen played when said tackles were easily 325 pounds or more.
He fought every game against players who were 50, 60, and in the case of Super Bowl XXXII, 70 pounds heavier and won those battles consistently. Nalen did not have the girth to win with brute strength, so he did it with perfect technique, intelligence and tremendous tenacity.
The great John Elway was quoted saying that Nalen was, “The epitome of grit, toughness and athleticism for centers.” That kind of pure skill alone needs to be rewarded.
Nalen's credentials do not end there. He anchored the Broncos O-line for two Super Bowl victories and in both, his blocking propelled Terrell Davis over 100 yards and to a Super Bowl MVP award.
Nalen was selected to the Pro Bowl five times and was an All-Pro three times. He did so without any loud-mouthed self-promotion. He was truly an unsung hero of the vaunted Broncos' rushing attack.
During Nalen’s tenure with the Broncos, the offensive line allowed only 395 sacks, which is good for third-fewest in the entire NFL during that span.
Finally, the smoking gun in the evidence. In 11 of the 12 seasons Nalen was the starting center of the Broncos, he was the pivot for a 1,000-yard rusher. Actually it was 10 seasons because in 1998 he helped propel Davis to 2,008 yards, only the fourth rusher in history at the time to do so.
To add more clarity to this greatness is the fact that the season before Nalen became the starter, the Broncos didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher and the same goes for the season after. Nearly all other Hall of Fame centers cannot claim that type of production.
Not Dermontti Dawson or Dwight Stephenson, two modern-day Hall-of-Famers. Nalen’s production matched that of former Steelers great Mike Webster, who many believe to be the best center of all time.
However, it took Webster 16 seasons as a starter to garner the same production as Nalen. In other words, Nalen’s dominance is unprecedented.
The only other center that can match his greatness is Kevin Mawae. He played during the same era as Nalen and was inducted into the Hall in 2019. To place Mawae’s bronze bust alongside the other greats and not Nalen is a mockery to pro football and to all the players who have stepped onto the field. Compare Mawae and Nalen side-by-side and it is clear they are, at the very least, equal.
Furthermore, Nalen accomplished this production without the help of a great running back like Davis his entire career. He anchored the line for several no-name rushers like Olandis Gary, Rueben Droughns and Tatum Bell.
When Gary went on to a different team, his play was described by his coach as equal to a “ham sandwich.” In case you didn’t know, that means he was terrible. What Nalen did for many different running backs was truly amazing.
When discussing who the best center of all-time is, Nalen has to be included. His production speaks for itself. It was equal to or better than any other HoF center and that cannot be overlooked. He may be the best to play the center position ever, but he just did it so quietly people fail to take notice. He deserves to be in the Hall.
4. Louis Wright | CB | 1975-86
The term 'shutdown corner' has been the moniker for great cornerbacks for many years. When used correctly, it is a term that is given to that player who can take away one side of the field in the passing game.
When a cornerback is truly a shutdown corner, quarterbacks avoid them like the plague. Such players shut down any receiver that dares enter his space.
Names like Deion Sanders, Darrell Green, and Rod Woodson have been regarded as this type of cornerback. They were ushered into the Hall of Fame as soon as possible. So why is it that the original 'shutdown corner' keeps getting passed over?
Before the term was coined, Wright was closing down one side of the field for the Broncos in the 1970s and 1980s. Quarterbacks rarely threw at Wright.
Dan Fouts has been quoted saying, "We had to shy away from him, and that was not easy because he was on their left side, our right side, and it seems like you throw more passes to that side of the field." An HoF quarterback saying he was afraid to throw at Wright is a pretty solid endorsement.
Wright was a tall and fast player who performed great in all that he was asked to do on the field. He stuck to receivers like glue, so much so that he was asked to defend the opposing team’s best receiver with no help.
Many of the great cornerbacks look more like matadors than football players when a running back is speeding towards them, but not Wright. He was superb in run support and could hit hard.
If asked to build the prototype cornerback for success in the NFL, Wright is who would be constructed. He was 6-foot-2, weighed in at 200 pounds, and had incredible athleticism. He was a track star at San Jose State — he was fast. He was a savvy player who was excellent at press coverage, rarely beaten by receivers, and a sure tackler.
Wright earned a spot on the 1970s NFL All-Decade Team and is the only cornerback on that list who has not been elected to the Hall of Fame. What may be even more surprising is the fact that he has never been a finalist.
This is an incredible injustice. Of the 22 defenders selected for this best of the best team by decade, 17 of them are in Canton.
The biggest knock on Wright is his low interception total. It is tough to get a lot of interceptions when quarterbacks were afraid to throw your way.
The voters love to point to stats when considering players for the Hall, which is unfortunate in Wright’s case. However, stats do not tell the entire story as we can plainly see.
In his 12-year career, Wright was selected to the Pro Bowl five times, was a first-team All-Pro twice, helped the Broncos get to two Super Bowls, and was voted as All-Pro or All-Conference many times by a slew of other sports writing organizations.
He was the second-best player on one of the most iconic defenses of all-time, the Orange Crush defense of 1977. All in, he recorded 26 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries, 512 return yards, and four touchdowns. Newer fans to the game won’t know this, but when Wright played, he was considered by many players (teammates and opponents) to be the best cornerback in the NFL.
Unfortunately, as more time passes Wright's excellence on the field will slip farther from the voter’s memories. Watching him on the gridiron was a true pleasure and I will never forget how great of a player he truly was. He deserves a place among the greats in the halls of Canton.
3. Karl Mecklenburg | LB/DL | 1983-94
When Mecklenburg entered the NFL as a 12th round selection in the 1983 draft, coaches and fans did not expect much. Mecklenburg decided to prove them wrong in spectacular fashion.
Not only did he vastly exceed all expectations, he played in a manner not seen since and will never be seen again. Mecklenburg lined up at every front-seven position in a 3-4 defense formation for the Broncos. Actually, he played every front-seven position at an All-Pro level.
To put that feat into perspective, one must understand that Mecklenburg had to possess the intelligence to learn seven different positions, the athletic ability to play all four linebacker roles, and the strength and tenacity to hold the point of attack at the three down lineman positions.
To do it with the level of proficiency that he displayed is nearly unbelievable and quite exceptional. This seven-headed monster could seamlessly shift from defensive end on one play to inside linebacker on the next and be completely disruptive to the offense.
Mecklenburg wasn’t playing in the olden days of the NFL when players had to line up at multiple positions. He did this in the modern game because his defensive coordinator recognized his abilities and knew he could wreak havoc on an offense by shifting around.
Nearly every inside linebacker who plays in the NFL plays one position — inside linebacker. That player can gain an expert level of proficiency because they can focus on one position to hone their craft.
The level of excellence Mecklenburg displayed at each spot made him a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all too. That is remarkable and truly unprecedented. With players becoming more and more “specialized” in the NFL, this will never be seen again.
Mecklenburg displayed the leadership, work ethic, grit and skill worthy of being honored in the hallowed halls of Canton. His production and awards make him more than worthy.
In Mecklenburg’s 12 seasons in the league he played in three Super Bowls, was selected to the Pro Bowl six times, was a first-team All-Pro three times, and second-team All-Pro once.
When he retired he had tallied 1,104 tackles, sacked the quarterback 79 times, forced 16 fumbles and scored a safety. Those 79 sacks rank him No. 1 for any player who played the inside linebacker position.
He is also one of the select few who have more than 1,000 tackles and at least 75 sacks. The others who have done it are all in the Hall of Fame.
The only knock on an otherwise stellar career was the 0-3 mark in the Super Bowl. So what? There are several linebackers in the Hall of Fame with no victories in the big dance.
Unfortunately, Mecklenburg has not been given his due. He has more than enough production and career accomplishments to get into Canton. Plus, he has that the “one of a kind player status” that can only be recognized as greatness.
2. Steve Atwater | S | 1989-99
For some reason, the voters have a hard time selecting a pure safety to Hall of Fame. Maybe they have turned a corner by allowing Brian Dawkins to get his gold jacket much earlier than many expected.
Playing at an often overlooked position by said voters may be the reason why a stalwart like Atwater has not donned the same gold jacket next to a bronze bust. His career accomplishments are certainly not the reason.
The 'Smilin' Assassin' spent 11 seasons in the NFL. He went to the Pro Bowl eight times, was a first-team All-Pro selection twice, an All-Pro selection three times, and made the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1990s. He also made 1,180 tackles, intercepted the ball 24 times and is a two-time Super Bowl Champion.
Atwater was the secondary enforcer who helped the Broncos reach three Super Bowls and culminated in winning back-to-back World Championships. However, he did more than just help them reach those Super Bowls, he was instrumental in getting the Broncos their first championship.
In fact, some would argue he could have been the MVP in Super Bowl XXXII. His play was nothing short of stellar. He was credited with six solo tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
Furthermore, his big plays came at times when the Broncos needed them most. He sacked Brett Favre and forced a fumble when Terrell Davis was sitting out the second quarter due to a migraine.
On a blitz, Atwater batted down a pass at the line that was intended for a wide-open Green Bay receiver. Finally, during the Packers' frantic charge in the final minutes, Atwater broke up a pass with a collision so fierce three players were knocked out, including himself. Had those plays not been made, it's possible the Packers could have won the game.
Voters and uninformed media people will point to his low career interception count as a negative. Granted, 24 interceptions don’t rank as high in history as many other defensive backs, but that was not why Atwater was drafted nor was it required of him.
His skill-set was as an enforcer, intimidator and run-stuffer, at which he was the best ever. If you don’t believe that, ask Christian Okoye for validation. Atwater is invariably included in every 'Hardest Hitters' or 'Most Feared Tacklers' list.
He transformed the safety position, paving the way for the 'in the box safety' and making it a sought after position in the NFL.
If Atwater had a few more career interceptions he would have been a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. With his accomplishments, those said interceptions are not needed for entry into Canton.
Atwater should have been in the Hall long ago to usher in the new breed of safety enforcers like Dawkins. It is long past time for his gold jacket and he needs to get the vote in 2020.
1. Randy Gradishar | LB | 1974-83
The wisest people on Planet Earth could ponder for a thousand years and not understand why Gradishar still awaits enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. His exclusion is arguably the most glaring and egregious omission since the doors were opened to Canton.
Gradishar is one of the best inside linebackers to ever don an NFL jersey. Don’t believe me? Believe highly respected NFL players and coaches. Here are some notable quotes about Gradishar:
Joe Collier: “The best player I’ve ever coached.”
Dan Reeves: “As good a linebacker as I’ve ever been around — and I’ve been around some great ones.”
Chuck Knox: "Randy was a great linebacker, and he certainly belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was tough, smart, and played every down all out."
Steve Largent: "Randy Gradishar absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame. Frankly, I'm surprised he is not in already.”
Gradishar left the game after only 10 seasons, choosing to leave while he was still playing at an elite level (maybe the voters are punishing him for leaving so soon and depriving the NFL world of a few more years of stellar football). In those 10 seasons, he went to the Pro Bowl seven times and was selected as an All-Pro five times.
For his work in his final season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro. This level of excellence is on par with other Hall-of-Fame linebackers from the same era (Brazile 10 seasons/7 Pro Bowls, Ham 12 seasons/8 Pro Bowls, Hendricks 15 seasons/8 Pro Bowls, Lambert 11 seasons/9 Pro Bowls).
Seven Pro Bowls are the most by any inside linebacker who is not in Canton. This greatness deserves recognition.
In 1978, he was voted the Defensive Player of the Year. Only two players who won this award in the 1970s are not in the Hall. Gradishar is one of them.
Gradishar was the best player on one of the most historic defenses of all time. He was the heart and soul of the famed Orange Crush defense and led that vaunted unit to a Super Bowl appearance.
He was an intelligent, all-around linebacker. He could play the pass as well as the run and is considered the game’s best short-yardage linebacker of all time.
Another notable quote.
Steve Sabol: "Randy Gradishar was the leader of one of the NFL's best defenses in the late ‘70's. His range separated him from others at his position. A sure and determined tackler, he was also an excellent pass defender. He had special qualities in terms of intelligence, preparation, and athletic ability, and his play anticipation was the best in football. He had a great ability to square his body into the ball carrier at the moment of impact, which made him an incredible performer on third or fourth and short."
For his career, Gradishar made 2,049 tackles, 20 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns), recovered 13 fumbles and 4.5 'official' sacks. Tackles were not an official statistic and were recorded by the team back then so it could be argued that some of those were embellished.
For sake of argument, let’s say 25 percent of them were added on, that still equates to more than 1,500 tackles for an average greater than 150 per season! That bests Ray Lewis’ average by a significant margin and he was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
It is a shame that I have to point out that Gradishar is equally as good or better than other players who are in the Hall of Fame. It almost diminishes his merits. He deserves to be immortalized without a pity presentation along the other greats of the game and it should have happened a long time ago.
His bronze bust is long over-due. To contemplate that he is now in the senior pool is mind-boggling to say the least. It is time for the Hall of Fame to rectify this error and vote Gradishar as a Senior Candidate for 2020.