The Denver Broncos are hoping that pick No. 20 can pay off again

San Diego: Steve Atwater makes an interception and returns it for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, CA on November 30, 1997.

Coming up later this month, the Denver Broncos will make their first selection of the 2017 NFL Draft. After going just 9-7 in the 2016 defense of their Super Bowl 50 championship, the Broncos are hoping to get things turned around. They have a brand-new coaching staff, and are hoping to get back into postseason contention. This NFL Draft has significant depth at a number of different positions, and teams are going to able to find value, even with their later selections.

The Broncos are scheduled to have 10 picks in the draft, but with their first selection, they will be picking at the No. 20 spot. The 20th pick in the draft is one that actually has some distinction in Broncos franchise history.

Four different times in team history, the Broncos have held the 20th selection. The first two instances took place back in the 1960’s, as Denver selected Michigan State tight end Matt Snorton in 1964, and Purdue end Bob Hadrick in 1966. Hadrick never played a down in a Bronco uniform, and Snorton would log just five games, and never caught a pass.

However, if we fast forward nearly 40 years, we will see the 20th pick make more of an impact to the franchise.

In 2002, the Broncos were coming off of a 9-7 season that saw quarterbacks Brian Griese and Steve Beuerlein combine for 21 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. They were also sacked an abysmal 46 times. As usual, under head coach Mike Shanahan, the Denver running game had still been excellent. Running back Clinton Portis rushed for over 1,500 yards, and scored 17 total touchdowns.

Still, the Broncos knew that they needed help on their offensive front. So, with the 20th pick of the 2003 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos selected offensive tackle George Foster out of the University of Georgia. Foster had the kind of size and athleticism that had Denver hoping he would be a longtime starter at left tackle.

He never panned out.

Foster would struggle with speed rushers on the left side, and be moved to the right tackle spot. The Broncos were forced to try to patch together the left side of their line as Ephraim Salaam, Matt Lepsis, and even Erik Pears would get time at left tackle. Foster would last just four seasons in Denver, before being traded to Detroit. In 2007 he was shipped out, along with running back Tatum Bell, for cornerback Dre Bly. By 2009, Foster was out of the NFL.

You might look at this year’s No. 20 slot, and begin to wonder if based on the Broncos history we should have any reason for hope. Fortunately, we do have the 1989 draft to give us some optimism.

Of course, the Broncos had gone to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1986 and 1987, but had fallen short both times. In 1988, Denver had stumbled to an 8-8 record, and found themselves sitting at the 20th slot of the 1989 draft. John Elway was in his prime, but he clearly needed some more help, and there were a number of players on the board that were of interest.

University of Miami running back Cleveland Gary would give the Broncos offense a boost. Offensive guard Steve Wisniewski had been highly productive during his time at Penn State, and would help provide some protection up front. Andre Rison was a playmaking wide receiver out of Michigan State, and would give Elway another target in the passing game.

The Broncos instead, chose to go with a former quarterback-turned-safety, out of the University of Arkansas.

Steve Atwater proved to be exactly what the Broncos needed.

Atwater came to town, and made an immediate impact, leading the team in tackles in his very first season. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips used Atwater in a number of different ways, and the middle of the field would no longer be safe for Denver opponents. He would finish second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting to Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, but he was just getting started.

Over his 11-year career, Atwater would rack up over 1,000 tackles, and 24 interceptions, while being named to the Pro Bowl eight times. He was a First-Team All-Pro twice, won two Super Bowls, and was elected into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 2005.

The Broncos are getting ready to make another selection at pick number 20. While the odds might be pretty good that this pick might simply be average, Broncos fans can hope for the best.

We have seen them grab an all-time franchise great at the very same spot.

Could it happen again?

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