The biggest late-round draft steals in Denver Broncos history

The 2017 NFL Draft is less than two weeks away, and as we look forward to who the Denver Broncos may choose to bolster their roster, we also look back at some of the picks they have taken previously.

While the selection of players at this level is notoriously fickle, the Broncos have been fortunate enough to grab some of the all-time steals in league history. It is one thing to select one of the top-rated prospects, and see them go on to have a successful career. It is quite another, to see a pick that is passed on repeatedly by every team in the league, go on to greatness.

Sure, some of it might be luck, but it has happened a number of times in Denver. While we hope for this year to turn up a diamond in the rough, we take a look back at the greatest draft steals in Broncos history.

5. 1994: Tom Nalen, C, Boston College, 7th round, pick 218

Nalen, of course, served as the center and anchor for those incredible offensive lines that produced 11 1,000-yard seasons from six different running backs. For an incredible 12-14-year span, it seemed the Broncos could plug just about any back into their offense, and get a thousand yards.

However, it is easy to forget that after starting for three years at Boston College, Tom Nalen was skipped 217 times by NFL teams.  Fortunately, the Broncos finally took him with pick No. 218, just five picks from the end of the 1994 NFL Draft.

Nalen played his entire 14-year career with the Broncos, being elected to five Pro Bowls, and being a key component in the Super Bowl winning teams of the late 1990’s. Nalen was elected to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 2013.

4. 1968: Paul Smith, DT, New Mexico, 9th round, pick 222

Paul Smith was elected into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 1986, but back in the 1968 NFL Draft, he was largely a forgotten man.  Smith lasted until the beginning of the ninth round, and was the 17th defensive tackle selected.

Smith came to Denver, and ended up being the first player in team history to play more than ten seasons for the franchise. Drafted as a little known defensive tackle out of the University of New Mexico, Smith was versatile enough to move out to defensive end when needed.

As the Broncos transitioned into a 3-4 defensive scheme under Joe Collier, that versatility would allow Smith to flourish. He would finish his career with 55 sacks, and was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1972 and 1973. Smith was one of the leaders of the famed “Orange Crush” defense that propelled the Broncos to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1977. Smith passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000.

3. 1983: Karl Mecklenburg, DE, Minnesota, 12th round, pick 310

We all remember the 1983 draft, but we remember it more for who the Broncos traded for, than for whom they actually drafted.

Karl Mecklenburg came to Denver as a result of another player, who never played a single game in a Broncos uniform. The Denver coaching staff was watching film of Northwestern offensive tackle Chris Hinton, playing against Minnesota, when they noticed an undersized linebacker that managed to get two sacks against the All-American tackle.

Of course, the Broncos would draft Hinton, and he would be part of the trade with Baltimore that would bring quarterback John Elway to Denver. The Broncos would then go on to grab Mecklenburg in the 12th round.

The “Albino Rhino” would play 12 seasons in Denver, and register over one thousand tackles, 79 career sacks, and be voted to the Pro Bowl six times.

2. 1995: Terrell Davis, RB, Georgia, 6th round, pick 196

Terrell Davis was selected by the Denver Broncos in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL Draft, and the rest is history as they say; but the real story wasn’t nearly that simple. Davis barely played at the University of Georgia, sitting behind Garrison Hearst for most of his time there.

He also battled both injuries and head coach Ray Goff, who rarely allowed Davis to see the field. When he came to Denver, he was listed sixth on the depth chart, but he kept showing constant improvement, and seemed to be a good fit for head coach Mike Shanahan’s zone-read offense.

A big hit on a special teams play in a preseason game, garnered the rookie some attention. By the season opener, Davis would be starting, and would go on to rush for over 1,000 yards as a rookie.

Over the next three seasons, Davis would reach heights that have been attained by very few. From 1996-1998, he would run for over 6,400 yards, score 65 touchdowns, win two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP, and be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

Davis would see his career shortened due to a knee injury, having rushed for nearly 9,000 yards, and being named to the Pro Bowl three times. In February, Davis was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will be inducted in Canton later this summer.

1. 1990: Shannon Sharpe, TE, Savannah State, 7th round, pick 192

Known for most of his life as the younger brother of Sterling Sharpe, Shannon quietly came to Denver, and made quite a name for himself.

The Broncos weren’t quite sure how to use Sharpe in his first few seasons. He was deemed too slow to be a wide receiver, and not a good enough blocker to be a tight end. However, by his third season, they realized that he was too strong for cornerbacks or safeties to defend. He was also too fast for linebackers to cover.

Sharpe created a mismatch on nearly every play, and a star was born. Sharpe rewrote the record book for tight ends in the NFL. He played 14 seasons, catching 877 career passes, and scoring 66 touchdowns. He was voted to the Pro Bowl a stunning eight times, won three Super Bowls, and in 2011 was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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