20/20 Retrospective – The 20 greatest Broncos players in the 2000s
Jan 28, 2020, 6:28 AM | Updated: Jan 31, 2020, 1:36 am
Since the start of the new millennium, Broncos fans have seen the team at both ends of the spectrum. At one point, Denver was among the best teams in the league, playing in Super Bowls and winning championships. At another, they were setting marks of futility that the franchise hasn’t seen since the early 1970s.
During that time, a ton of different names and faces have rolled through town, donning the orange and blue. Some have been among the biggest names to ever play in the NFL.
In honor of the past 20 years of Broncos football, it’s time to take a look back on some of the best to ever walk onto the gridiron at Empower Field. Here are the 20 best Broncos of the 2000s:
20. Matt Prater (2007-13)
In 2013, when the Broncos were the most-prolific offense in NFL history, it wasn’t just their quarterback, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers who were lighting up the scoreboard; Denver’s kicker also had a banner year. That season, Prater set a franchise record with 150 points, connecting on 25 out of 26 field goals and all 75 of his extra-point attempts. He also set an NFL record when he connected on a 64-yard field goal in a December win over the Titans.
19. Tim Tebow (2010-11)
It often wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was typically fairly ugly. But somehow, against all odds, Tebow found a way to get things done when it mattered most, especially during a magical 2011 season that made the Broncos relevant again on the national stage. Behind their unconventional quarterback, Denver won six straight games to dig out of a 2-5 hole. They won the AFC West and then hosted the Steelers in a playoffs game that would be one of the most-memorable moments in franchise history.
18. Clinton Portis (2002-03)
His time in Denver was short, as the second-round pick spent just two seasons with the Broncos before being traded to the Redskins for Champ Bailey, but they were productive years. Portis posted the third- (1,591 yards) and fifth-highest (1,508) single-season rushing totals in franchise history. He also scored 29 rushing touchdowns and caught two scores during those two years.
17. Jake Plummer (2003-06)
Outside of Peyton Manning, the most-productive quarterback to take snaps for the orange and blue in the past 20 years was Plummer, who signed as a free agent prior to the 2003 season. Prior to getting replaced by rookie Jay Cutler during the 2006 season, Plummer posted a 39-15 record, led the Broncos to the 2005 AFC title game, threw 71 touchdowns and brought a fun style of play back to the Mile High City. Oft-maligned during his time with the team, Plummer was a gamer who found ways to win.
16. DeMarcus Ware (2014-16)
From a numbers standpoint, Ware’s three seasons in Denver were very good. He recorded 21.5 sacks and earned two Pro Bowl trips (2004 and ’05). But it was his leadership that made the biggest impact. He provided an example to a young, talented pass rusher named Von Miller, helping the linebacker get his life and career back on track. It all culminated for Ware in 2015, when he posted 3.5 sacks in three playoff games, helping a dominant Broncos defense lead the team to a win in Super Bowl 50.
15. Emmanuel Sanders (2014-19)
In four-plus seasons with the Broncos, Sanders was dependable and productive, despite playing with every type of quarterback. He made a Pro Bowl in 2014 with Peyton Manning throwing him passes, something he did again in 2016 when Trevor Siemian was the team’s signal caller. All told, Sanders hauled in 404 passes for 5,361 yards and 28 touchdowns during his time in Denver. His 101 catches in 2014 is tied for the seventh highest total in a single season in franchise history.
14. Julius Thomas (2011-14)
Some will argue that Thomas was the beneficiary of playing with Peyton Manning, a point that is made by the fact that the tight end didn’t fare very well once he left Denver. But the reality is that he was the most-prolific player at his position for the Broncos since Shannon Sharpe. In 2013 and ’14, two Pro Bowl seasons for Thomas, he caught 108 passes and hauled in 24 touchdowns, making him a huge weapon in one of the best offenses in NFL history.
13. Brandon Marshall (2006-09)
His years with the Broncos certainly included their share of trouble, including a well-documented squabble with head coach Josh McDaniels that ultimately saw the wideout run out of town, but four years in Denver were unbelievably productive. After a slow rookie season, Marshall’s next three campaigns are among the top six in franchise history, as he caught 102, 104 and 101 passes in 2007-09, racking up 1,325, 1,265 and 1,120 yards. In short, Marshall was a pass-catching machine in a Broncos uniform.
12. Tom Nalen (2000-07)
The Ring of Fame center is best remembered for being a part of the back-to-back Super Bowl teams in the late-1990s, but Nalen’s top seasons actually came after John Elway retired. He anchored an offensive line that opened holes for a series of 1,000-yard rushers, from all-time greats like Terrell Davis to one-year wonders like Rueben Droughns. His best seasons came in 2000 and 2003, when he was named first-team All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl.
11. Elvis Dumervil (2006-12)
The fact that his time with the Broncos came to an end because he and the team couldn’t coordinate getting his contract faxed back to Dove Valley is a shame, as it puts a stain on six great seasons. During his time in Denver, Dumervil was a premier pass rusher. He posted 63.5 sacks, including a league-leading 17.0 during the 2009 season. In his final three seasons with the Broncos, Dumervil was selected to the Pro Bowl at the end of each year, a sign that his career was far from falling off when he left town.
10. Rod Smith (2000-06)
Another player best remembered for winning back-to-back titles in the late-1990s, Smith also had his most-productive seasons in the 2000s. He earned three trips to the Pro Bowl, highlighted by a 2001 season in which he caught an NFL-high 113 passes, which is also the most-prolific single season in Broncos history. All told, Smith had five 1,000-yard seasons in the decade, hauled in 43 of his 68 career touchdowns and was a team leader during the 2005 season that ended in the AFC Championship Game.
9. Aqib Talib (2014-17)
When it comes to the infamous “No Fly Zone,” there are a lot of players who deserve credit for the Broncos big-play secondary. But at the top of the list is Talib, who arrived as a free agent in 2014. The cornerback made an immediate impact, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons in Denver, getting voted first-team all Pro in 2016 and taking back six of his 11 interceptions in a Broncos uniform for a touchdown. He made plays, brought swagger and gave Denver’s defense the edge they needed.
8. Ryan Clady (2008-14)
It’s hard to quantify the impact of an offensive lineman, but Clady is an exception. When he was healthy, he was a rock at left tackle for the Broncos, a position that isn’t easy to fill, as the team has discovered in recent seasons. After being a first-round pick in 2008, Clady started 16 games in six of his seven years in Denver; he missed 14 during the team’s Super Bowl run in 2013. The left tackle was a four-time Pro Bowl player and two-time first-team All-Pro, showing his high-end ability.
7. Chris Harris Jr. (2011-19)
Everyone loves his story, as Harris made the team in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas. But he didn’t just earn a spot on the roster; he became an impact player for nearly a decade, including a pair of Super Bowl teams. During that time, Harris hauled in 20 interceptions, the 11th-most in franchise history, earned four Pro Bowl nominations and was selected first-team All-Pro in 2016. An integral part of Denver’s “No Fly Zone,” he helped bring a Super Bowl title to Denver.
6. Al Wilson (2000-06)
One of the most under-appreciated players in Broncos history, including by the team he played for during eight productive seasons. During his career, Wilson started 119 games at middle linebacker, becoming the centerpiece of some very good defenses. He earned five Pro Bowl invites, the most of any Broncos player not in the team’s Ring of Fame, and was first-team All-Pro during Denver’s stellar 2005 season. He had 723 tackles, 21.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles and five interceptions during his career.
5. Trevor Pryce (2000-05)
Joining Wilson on the list of overlooked Broncos is Pryce, a player who was a force in the middle of Denver’s defensive line. His first two seasons ended in Super Bowl victories, where he was mostly a role player. But in the 2000s, he emerged as a force, earning three Pro Bowl invites and racking up 40.5 of the 64.0 sacks he posted as a Bronco, the fourth-highest total in franchise history. To post those kinds of numbers as an interior defensive lineman is astounding.
4. Demaryius Thomas (2010-18)
For whatever reason, Thomas was always drawing the ire of fans; the occasional dropped pass got blown out of proportion, causing some to not notice the 665 receptions, 9,055 yards and 60 touchdowns he hauled in during his career with the Broncos. Those numbers are good for second, third and second all-time in Broncos history, respectively. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and a player who always came up big in the playoffs, something that helped Denver reach a pair of Super Bowls.
3. Champ Bailey (2004-13)
Given that the Broncos gave up Clinton Portis to acquire the Pro Bowl cornerback, Bailey had a lot to live up to once he arrived in town; Portis was going to be Denver’s “next Terrell Davis.” Ten years later, no one was regretting the trade. As a Bronco, Bailey had 34 interceptions, the fourth-most in franchise history. He was also selected to eight Pro Bowls and earned first-team All-NFL honors at the end of three different seasons. These numbers led him to the Hall of Fame in 2019.
2. Von Miller (2011-19)
With 106 career sacks, Miller is already atop that statistical category in Broncos history, with plenty of time to pad his lead. During his nine seasons in Denver, he’s eclipsed double-digits in sacks seven times, including 18.5 in 2012. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time first-team All-NFL choice and was named Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl 50, when he terrorized Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to lead the Broncos to a championship.
1.Peyton Manning (2012-15)
Manning did things in a Broncos uniform that no other quarterback in franchise history has ever approached, including John Elway. In 2013, he posted a season for the ages, throwing for a league-leading 5,477 yards and an NFL single-season record 55 touchdowns. But he wasn’t just numbers; Manning also won a lot of games. During his tenure in Denver, the Broncos posted a 45-12 regular-season record, were the AFC’s No. 1 seed three times, advanced to two Super Bowls and won a title.