Top 5 Denver Broncos deserving of Hall of Fame honors

Mike Shanahan
Nov 1, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos former head coach Mike Shanahan before the game against the Green Bay Packers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos are one of the NFL’s most historic franchises. The three-time Super Bowl champions are sending three representatives into the Hall of Fame this weekend.

Safety Steve Atwater earned the famous knock in 2020 — though the ceremony was delayed until this season — while safety John Lynch and quarterback Peyton Manning received the good news in 2021.

According to the Hall of Fame’s official website, the Broncos have 14 players who played for the franchise currently in the Hall of Fame, yet only eight of them played the majority of their career in Denver.

Although numbers are trending in the right direction for the franchise, numerous players have been overlooked and deserve a spot next to their former teammates in the halls of Canton.

Here are the Denver Broncos’ top five Hall of Fame snubs.

Randy Gradishar, Broncos’ man in the middle

Randy Gradishar came to Denver via “The Ohio State University. The linebacker played with the Broncos throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Gradishar earned Pro Bowl honors seven times and was a catalyst for the famous “Orange Crush” defense.

A force in both the passing game and run game, Gradishar intercepted an eye-popping 20 passes. He compiled a staggering 2,049 tackles in his career, more than 500 than Ray Lewis. Gradishar topped off his achievements by earning NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1978.

Most players with his resume would be first-ballot Hall of Famers, yet Gradishar has yet to receive the call.

Hands down, Gradishar is one of the best linebackers of his era. He takes no back seat to guys like Jack Lambert and a host of others. The Orange and Blue No. 53 deserves to see his bust in Canton, Ohio soon.

Best quote: “We just started winning, and the fans went nuts, went crazy with excitement and enthusiasm. Painting their houses. Everything was orange and blue.”

Rod Smith, the Broncos’ team’s all-time leading receiver

One of the most productive undrafted free agents in NFL history, Rod Smith is the most decorated pass-catcher in Broncos history.

No. 80 for the Broncos is the team’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns per Pro Football Reference.

Notably, the former Missouri Southern quarterback is the only undrafted NFL player to pile up more than 10,000 receiving yards.

The gritty wide receiver won two Super Bowls while earning three Pro Bowl honors.

Memorable quote: “I’ve got to get the Terrible Towels out to root for the Steelers so we can play at home. Nothing against the Colts, but I just want to play at home.”

Karl Mecklenburg, the human swiss army knife

Karl Mecklenburg was incredibly multi-faceted. The former cornerstone of the Orange Crush defenses of the 1980s helped get the Broncos to three Super Bowls.

Mecklenberg lined up in any of the seven front-seven positions within the Broncos’ 3-4 scheme. Not only did “Meck” play each role, but did so well.

This often caused confusion amongst those who vote in the Hall of Fame. Writers who did not watch him will cite a lack of overwhelming statistics.

Sadly, if Meckelenberg would have stayed at any one of the seven positions he played he could have been one of the game’s best. The ultimate team player hurt his stock by being good at too many roles.

However, people who played against No. 77 know how good he was. Mecklenburg earned six Pro-Bowl nods and was named a First-Team All-Pro four times.

Memorable quote, “You’re the Best ILB – pass rusher combo I ever coached— no one else has ever come close to having that kind of talent ! — Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) June 29, 2020

Tom Nalen, an outstanding center

Tom Nalen was a 7th-round selection out of Boston College, as he did not fit the profile of a center when he arrived in the NFL.

The lighter Nalen picked up Mike Shannahan’s offense quickly and became the team’s full-time starter at the tail end of his rookie season.

Nalen’s arrival coincided with the beginning of the Broncos’ prolific running attack. His presence was key to the team’s success. He played 14 seasons for the Broncos and Shannahan, in the middle of the highly touted offensive line.

The best center in team history was recognized for his tremendous play by media, coaches, and his peers.

Nalen earned 5-time Pro-Bowl and 2-time All-Pro selections. Per Pro Football Reference, Nalen earned an All-Time Approximate Value Score of 131 which slots him a few spots behind Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman his former teammate.

Arguably the best center of his era, the longtime offensive anchor earned his place in the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 2013.

Memorable quote, “playing doesn’t lie, you’ve got to go out there and get it done. And if you do, it doesn’t matter how you got there, they’ll find a place for you to play.”

Mike Shannahan, Super Bowl champion and offensive piooneer

Mike Shanahan is one of the rare innovators of the game. A disciple of Bill Walsh and the west coast system, the impact of the former Broncos head coach continues to reverberate through the NFL.

Head coaches such as his son, San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, and others like, the Rams’ Sean McVay, Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor all come from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree.

Shanahan has an all-time win-loss record of 170-138. This ranks him ahead of contemporaries Bill Cower and Tony Dungy. He also leads Hall of Famers such as Hank Stram, John Madden, and Marv Levy.

The former Broncos boss’s delay from the Hall of Fame could have been influenced by his strange absence from the team’s Ring of Fame. Though Shanahan has his name in the ring surrounding Empower Field at Mile High, it was far later than expected.

Now, the rare 2-time Super Bowl-winning head coach deserves a bust in Caton.

Memorable quote, “Limits are self-imposed. But there are no limits to human energy nor the goals you can achieve.”