Mike Tanier recently shared his list of the most underrated players in NFL history. As you might suspect, a Denver Bronco player did make the list, that being cornerback Louis Wright.
Meanwhile, Tanier mentioned others who have Hall of Fame worthy resumes but get overlooked, from Randy Gradishar to Karl Mecklenburg, from Tom Nalen to Steve Atwater (though Atwater has gained traction in recent years by being named a finalist).
But it’s not just Hall of Fame voters who overlook Bronco players because of the teams they happened to play on. Broncos fans themselves are often guilty of overlooking certain players on their favorite team, in terms of the impact they had. Those reasons can range from teammates who fans argue should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to players who fans have a hard time putting their careers into perspective.
I have here a list of 10 of the most underrated Denver Broncos, underrated by Broncos fans and even the Ring of Fame committee itself. To make the list, a player could not be a Broncos Ring of Famer, mentioned as a worthy Pro Football Hall of Famer or considered a strong candidate for either honor, but isn’t in simply because he isn’t yet eligible.
That means there’s no Louis Wright, no Randy Gradishar, no Tom Nalen, no Steve Atwater, no Champ Bailey and no Von Miller on this list – not one Broncos fan underrates what those players contributed. But for the players I am about to mention, many Broncos fans underestimate how important they were to the team – and quite a few of them have good arguments to make the Ring of Fame.
1. Riley Odoms, TE: You want to know what the biggest problem is with many people who rank tight ends these days? Answer: They think in terms of fantasy football, gravitating to guys who catch lots of passes and score lots of touchdowns. This is what makes some current Broncos fans believe Tony Scheffler and Julius Thomas are to be put on a pedestal, when in reality, both suffered from one problem: They were poor blockers.
Now, we know no Broncos tight end was better than Shannon Sharpe. But we also know it wasn’t simply because he caught a lot of passes and scored a lot of TDs – he excelled as a blocker, too. So who is the guy who should be ranked behind him as the second-best tight end to play for the Broncos?
The name you need to keep repeating is Riley Odoms. Although Odoms didn’t blow people away with eye-popping numbers, he was a reliable pass catcher who fell just four receptions shy of 400 for his career and scored 41 touchdowns. He was named to four Pro Bowls and was a two-time first team All-Pro selection. Most of all, he excelled as a blocker and helped pave the way for running backs and wide receivers alike.
The fact that people get so smitten with TIGHT END NUMBAHS is a slap in the face to guys like Odoms, who played in an era in which tight ends who were a major focus in the passing game were the exception, not the rule. Simply put, if you were going to grab a tight end other than Sharpe to fill out a Broncos’ roster, you better be picking Odoms before you pick somebody like Scheffler or Thomas.
Say it with me now, everyone: Riley Odoms is absolutely deserving of a spot in the Ring of Fame. In fact, it shouldn’t really be a debate. And Nick Korte better get on the ball and get his Ring of Fame case put together ASAP!
2. Barney Chavous, DE: We recently had a discussion about whether or not Chavous belongs in the Ring of Fame. The majority of people who voted said he does not.
That means the majority of people fell into the trap of not understanding just how valuable Chavous was. It is understandable, though, because sacks weren’t kept as an official stat. Just as importantly, fans tend to remember the guy who lined up opposite Chavous – he lined up on the left side, while the more energetic and hard-nosed guy, Lyle Alzado, lined up on the right side for much of Chavous’ career.
But Chavous averaged a little less than six sacks per season in his final four seasons with the Broncos – the only seasons Chavous played in which sacks were kept as an official stat, and just as importantly, when Chavous wasn’t lining up alongside somebody like Alzadao. If you simply give him six sacks per season in the eight seasons in which that stat wasn’t kept, that gives him 48 for those seasons and 71 total. That would put him fourth all-time for the Broncos, trailing just Simon Fletcher, Karl Mecklenburg and Von Miller.
Pro Football Reference ranks players based on approximate value. It does come with the caveat that, with regards to individual teams, it only accounts for those seasons with the team. But on that list, Chavous ranks 12th overall. Ten of the players who rank ahead of him are in the Broncos Ring of Fame and the 11th player, Champ Bailey, will get there. The guy who ranks ahead of Chavous happens to be a Ring of Famer as well: Shannon Sharpe.
There is a definite case to be made for Chavous in the Ring of Fame, to the point that people may need to rethink why they don’t believe he belongs. But he’s not the only defensive player from the Orange Crush who deserves reconsideration… which brings me to the next guy on the list.
3. Rubin Carter, NT: Nose tackle is one of the least glamorous positions in the NFL. The primary objectives of a nose tackle are to stop the run and to draw as much attention away from offensive linemen as possible so the rest of the defensive front can get in there and get to the quarterback.
Those were Carter’s objectives during his time with the Broncos. As a result, he got even less attention than Chavous did. Trying to evaluate him from a statistical standpoint is tough, because when sacks were kept as an official state, he tallied five in three seasons, before he lost his starting job in 1986 to another player (who I will get to later).
That lack of glamorous production is no doubt a reason why many Broncos fans don’t appreciate Carter’s contributions. But PFF ranks Carter 14th overall in terms of approximate value to the franchise. So perhaps revisiting Carter’s Ring of Fame case is in order.
4. Trevor Pryce, DT: Our previous discussion of Carter should remind everyone of one of our complaints about Mike Shanahan’s final years: The lack of a defensive tackle who could stop the run. The time Pryce spent with the Broncos should only remind people about when Shanahan actually had such a player.
Of course, Pryce could do more than stop the run. He twice posted double-digit sacks in a season and hovered just below 10 in a couple other seasons. Shanahan cut him for cap reasons after the 2005 season – he had turned 31, so logic would indicate he was about to exit his prime.
Except he went on to have 13 sacks in his first season with Baltimore. Ah, well, can’t win them all.
Seriously, Pryce is one of those players who is likely to get overlooked because he wasn’t a career Bronco. Although I wonder if he’ll have a better chance of making the Ring of Fame because there’s more recent evidence of his play than of Chavous and Carter.
5. Rulon Jones, DE: Jones took a couple of years to blossom – in his third and fourth seasons (1982 and 1983), the first two years sacks were kept as an official stat, he had six sacks in 21 games (the 1982 season was the strike-shortened season).
Then Jones exploded onto the scene in the next three seasons, racking up 34.5 sacks and getting two Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro nod. Sadly, injuries took their toll on him, to the point that he had to enter a rotational role in his final season, then retire the next year when he was just 31 years old.
So why do I rank Jones lower than Chavous? Answer: Because Jones wasn’t paired with a defensive end who took attention away from him. With that said, I will not argue that Jones’ contributions are sometimes overlooked and, if not for injuries, he might have built himself a Hall of Fame career.
6. Steve Foley, DB: We’ve discussed Foley and his Ring of Fame case. Foley probably wasn’t as valuable to the Orange Crush defense as Chavous or Carter – in fact, PFF approximate value ranks him 25th among Broncos. And that’s for a player who spent his entire career with the team.
But given that Foley is the all-time interceptions leader for the Broncos with 44, there is a reason to reconsider his case. This gets overlooked, though, because Foley was surrounded by better defensive backs such as Bill Thompson and Louis Wright.
The more I think about it, the more I’d put Chavous and Carter in before Foley. But that doesn’t mean I’d exclude Foley, period.
7. Greg Kragen, NT: Remember our Rubin Carter discussion? As great as Carter was during his time with the Broncos, somebody came along and claimed the starting job from Carter as his career was winding down. That would be none other than Kragen, who did pretty well for himself, too.
Like Carter, Kragen didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, because his role was like Carter’s: Stop the run and draw attention from offensive linemen so other guys could get to the quarterback. Kragen, though, wasn’t bad at getting to the QB, with 22.5 sacks in his nine seasons with the Broncos and a Pro Bowl berth in 1989.
Kragen left the Broncos as a free agent in 1994, signing with the Chiefs but starting just two games. He finished his season with the Panthers, being an expansion draft selection and starting 46 games in three seasons with that team. During his time with the Broncos, though, he tended to be one of those unsung heroes of a quality defense.
8. Otis Armstrong, RB: We all wonder what might have been had Terrell Davis not suffered multiple injuries after several dominant seasons, But Davis wasn’t the first Bronco running back to have his career cut short after a period of dominance.
That distinction would go to Armstrong, a first-round pick of the Broncos in 1973. He spent his first season in the NFL as a kick returner, before getting more touches in the running game in his second season. That’s when he exploded onto the scene with 1,407 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Keep in mind that was when the NFL played 14 games per season. Add two more games to the regular season and Armstrong is approaching Davis levels.
Sadly, injuries limited Armstrong to four games in 1975. He bounced back to rush for 1,008 yards in 1976, earning his second Pro Bowl nomination. After that, he fell into a running back rotation and his career was cut short in 1980 because of a problem with his spinal cord that forced his retirement at age 30.
In terms of overall career, Armstrong is not equal to Davis. But if you are asking about what might have been, it’s fair to ask if Armstrong have stayed healthy, if he would be a no-brainer for the Ring of Fame.
9. Paul Howard, OG: So much time is spent focusing on the Orange Crush defense during the 1970s that we Broncos fans forget that there were some good players on offense, too, during that time. One of the forgotten mainstays of the offense was Howard.
An offensive lineman who played 13 seasons, spanning the Orange Crush era to the first few years of the John Elway era, Howard started 147 of the 187 games in which he played. The only seasons he never started a game were his rookie campaign in 1973 and the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Howard was never one of the top offensive linemen in the NFL. And it’s true that players didn’t experience free agency then like they do now. But there’s something to be said for Howard sticking around for so long – after all, if he was never any good, surely a rookie would have come along and beaten him for the job at some point.
10. Ken Lanier, OT: The same thing applies to this guy who started most of his games in the years that John Elway was quarterback. And everyone remembers the Broncos’ offensive line as a mediocre group that couldn’t keep Elway from running for his life.
But as with Howard, there’s something to be said for a player who started 165 of his 177 games with the Broncos. He played 11 seasons for the team before departing for Oakland, in which he lasted two games, only to return to the Broncos for a brief period as a backup.
Some will raise their eyebrows when they see that Lanier ranks 15th overall on PFF’s approximate value list for the Broncos when Gary Zimmerman ranks 36th. But that’s where context is important. Zimmerman’s rank is based on his time with the Broncos, not his career. Take the 62 value for his Broncos career and combine it with the 69 for his Vikings career and you get 131 for his NFL career – a far superior career number to Lanier’s career number of 83.
Still, Lanier’s approximate value is indicative of a good player, one who perhaps doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves.
I will add this: Of the Broncos’ top 15 players in terms of approximate career value, all of them were career Broncos, save for two: Champ Bailey and Shannon Sharpe. Make it the top 20 and you have four more career Broncos and one who wasn’t: Trevor Pryce. And of those 20, the following are in the Ring of Fame, in order of which they are ranked in approximate value: John Elway, Tom Nalen, Rod Smith, Karl Mecklenburg, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Randy Gradishar, Bill Thompson, Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater, Shannon Sharpe, Floyd Little and Terrell Davis.
Of those not in the Ring of Fame, Champ Bailey is the obvious candidate (he’s just not eligible yet), Al Wilson is eligible and somebody frequently mentioned as deserving, and Von Miller is still active and building his legacy. The others were among my 10 players mentioned in this list: Chavous, Carter, Lanier and Pryce.
And of the 10 underrated players I mentioned, perhaps a few of them probably aren’t Ring of Famers. (Remember, context is important for overall careers.) But a few of them warrant consideration, perhaps more than you Broncos fans give them.
Always remember: It’s not just Hall of Fame who overlook Bronco players – it’s Broncos fans themselves who don’t always take a deeper look at the overall careers of notable players for their favorite teams.