Only two linebackers were picked in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but don’t base their vitality to the team on that. Linebackers are the most versatile, raw, athletic talents on any roster; they can make or break a defense.
More specifically, to excel at the inside linebacker position, the player must quickly pick up on the offensive scheme he is facing, be agile and quick enough to potentially run downfield as a safety, and, perhaps above all possess a tenacity to win.
The top five inside linebackers in Denver Broncos history embodied all that and maybe even a hidden mean streak (I’m looking at you, Romo).
5. Al Wilson
Career in Denver: 1999-2006 (8 seasons)
Career Accolades: 5-time Pro Bolwer; 1-time First-Team All-Pro
Hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Wilson retired, because he is one of the only players on this list I can personally remember watching. At 6-foot-0, Wilson was slightly undersized, but you certainly didn’t notice that once he stepped onto the field.
He was a prolific player and an even better leader and motivator. At the middle linebacker position, he was the rock the franchise needed coming off the high of the ‘99 Super Bowl win.
The team Wilson joined was one in transition — from the championship caliber with John Elway to the inexperience of Brian Griese. Still, during his eight-year career with Denver, Wilson earned five Pro Bowl trips, two All-Pro honors and compiled 714 tackles and 21.5 sacks.
His career came to an abrupt and painful end in 2006 when he suffered a life-threatening neck injury in a game against the Seattle Seahawks. Though he would never play another down in the NFL, his No. 56 jersey is still cherished by many Bronco fans who feel he can never quite be replaced.
4. Tom Jackson
Career in Denver: 1973-1986 (14 seasons)
Career Accolades: 3-time Pro Bowler; 1-time First-Team All-Pro
Jackson played 14 seasons with the Broncos as a part of the legendary Orange Crush defense of the 70s and 80s – but he is in the Hall of Fame for something else. In 2015, he was given the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award for his longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.
Before he became a talking head on the TV, he made a name for himself as a hard-hitting player on the field. Given the time period in which he played, Jackson’s statistics are not available, but as a defensive unit, the ‘77 Broncos gave up just 148 points all season.
Before the arrival of John Elway, Jackson and the rest of the Orange Crush were the backbone of a team that reached the playoffs six times, including two trips to the Super Bowl.
The three-time Pro Bowler can still be seen on ESPN as an NFL analyst.
Career in Denver: 1996-2001 (6 seasons)
Pro Bowls: 2-time Pro Bowler; 2-time Super Bowl champion
Romanowski would be the first to tell you he was as mean and dirty as a player could get in the 90s. Before Ndamukong Suh entered the fray, Romanowski topped the charts for dirty players. He developed a reputation after he snapped Dave Meggett’s finger, broke Kerry Collins’ jaw, kicked Larry Centers in the head and spit into J.J. Stokes’ face.
Told you he was dirty.
“When you’re going 150 miles an hour on every play, for 60 minutes, ‘Hey, did I cross the line?’ Absolutely,” Romanowski said. “I was a guy who never wanted to fall below the line.”
Besides that, he obviously had real talent. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1996 and 1998 and started in both Super Bowl wins.
Despite his ferocious and often controversial play on the field, he never missed a game in his 16 year career, compiling an impressive list of stats: 1,105 tackles, 39.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles and 18 interceptions. Somewhat ironically, he is now the CEO for wellness company, Nutrition53.
Career in Denver: 1974-1983 (10 seasons)
Pro Bowls: 7-time Pro Bowler; 2-time First-Team All-Pro
Gradishar absence in Canton is a point of contention for many, be they Broncos fans or just lovers of the game. ESPN’s Chris Berman once said “His play was only overshadowed by his class.”
Though Gradishar, too, played in a time before defensive statistics were kept, Kyle Montgomery compiled a summation of what Gradishar’s stats might have been. Spread across his 10-year tenure with Denver, he is said to have notched over 2,000 tackles and over 20 sacks. For reference, that’s about par with Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.
With numbers like that, combined with seven trips to the Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl berth with the Orange Crush, it’s a mystery why he hasn’t been elected in the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist in 2003 and 2008 but some argue it was his class and humble attitude that have kept him from eternal enshrinement.
Career in Denver: 1983-1994 (12 seasons)
Career Accolades: 6-time Pro Bowler; 3-time First-Team All-Pro
Mecklenburg embodied the pure athleticism and versatility most valued at the linebacker position throughout his 12 years with Denver. He could play at any of the three linebacker positions as well as at any point on the defensive line.
As a 12th-round pick, if he had played in the modern era, Mecklenburg would have gone undrafted. As it is, he still defied the expectations of those who let him fall to No. 310 overall.
A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Mecklenberg was beloved by teammates, and is one of just five players since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 with at least 1,000 tackles and 70 or more sacks. He has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame the last five years running, but has yet to see his bust erected in Canton.
His fondest memory playing in the orange and blue was the 1986 AFC Championship game in Cleveland.
“They didn’t even let us sleep that night. We were in a downtown hotel that was kind of a tower with an alley around it. They drove around our hotel, honking their horns and barking all night. It was unbelievable,” Mecklenburg said. “We would get off the bus and head into the locker room and just get pelted with dog bones. It was an experience like none I’ve ever had before. And to go in there, in that hostile of an environment, and win, was just an unbelievable feeling.”