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Sacco Sez: When the draft breeze blows both ways

Posted Mar 16, 2016

Back when the Broncos were in the AFL, the draft was not kind to them.

This is that exciting time of the NFL year in which teams are constructed anew, whether they finished dead last or won Super Bowl 50, as did our fabulous 2015 Denver Broncos team.

Regardless, an old adage that legendary NFL head coach Chuck Knox lived by comes to mind: "Yesterday is a canceled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. But today is cash on the barrelhead."

Yes, no matter how good 2015 was, there is always the matter of building the 2016 team, manipulating free agency, monetary realities, and of course, the draft.

Every team has a piece of history like the Broncos' trade for John Elway, one of the single most impactful trades in pro football history.

Not only did Elway lead the Broncos to five Super Bowls and to back-to-back world championships on his way to the Hall of Fame, but in storybook fashion that would be ludicrous if it were a movie, he became the general manager and took the Broncos back to the Super Bowl twice more, as has been well chronicled.

But the draft breezes blow both ways, and every team has blown a few picks along the way too.

In the Broncos' case, some of the most notable swings and misses came a long time ago.

I am writing with the idea that there are no players more significant than those who make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and every team has passed on guys who made it to Canton, but how about drafting a future Hall member and letting him get away?

Back in the early days the Broncos were like a small schoolyard boy swinging at a bigger kid who just put his hand on the little boy's head and let him swing at air.

Denver, then in the AFL, just could not compete with the NFL teams.

The American Football League was a laughingstock, and the Broncos were the poster boys for the most pathetic franchises in the game.

But that does not mean the Denver scouts were stupid. They made some great selections and made the best pitches possible.

In 1962, the Broncos' number one draft choice was a great defensive tackle from Utah State, and as fine a man as he was a player, Merlin Olsen, who was part of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome.

In 1964, the Broncos topped that, selecting three future Hall of Famers, but they failed to sign any of them.

Denver's legendary draft included first-round pick Bob Brown, The Boomer, a great tackle from Nebraska; 12th-round selection Paul Krause, who would go on to set the NFL interception record while patrolling the Minnesota Vikings secondary; and 14th-round choice "Bullet Bob" Hayes, a former Olympic sprinter considered the fastest full-time player in pro football in his era with the Cowboys.

All three were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Denver just did not have the bucks and the AFL lacked the reputation, so all went to the NFL.

But Denver kept swinging.

The following year, the Broncos' top pick came in round two and Denver went with Illinois All-American linebacker Dick Butkus, who of course signed with the Chicago Bears and remains one of the greatest and most-feared linebackers of all time.

But the worm turned in 1967, when the merger of the AFL and NFL produced a common draft — that is, a player had to sign with the team that chose him, and the Broncos selected the first consensus three-time All-American running back since Doak Walker: Floyd Little of Syracuse, "The Franchise" of the first decade and a half of our pro football history.

But the Broncos had one more bad draft pick up their sleeves, and this was the worst of all, because Denver actually had the player signed.

In 1968, General Manager/Head Coach Lou Saban drafted Curley Culp out of Arizona State. Culp was one of the strongest interior line players in football history and was also the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion, showing a truly astonishing blend of raw strength and agility.

But Saban also had an astonishing blend in his personality— a legendary temper coupled with a stubborn streak that would put a mule to shame.

He decided that Culp should be moved to offensive guard instead of nose tackle, and when Curley balked at the move, Saban traded him to Kansas City.

All he did with the Chiefs, and later the Houston Oilers, was become a pivotal example of the modern nose tackle occupying so many blockers that he was the prototype of the 3-4 middle interior lineman.

He helped lead the Chiefs to victory in Super Bowl IV and prompted Oakland Raiders' Hall of Fame center Jim Otto to call Culp "by far the strongest player I ever faced."

He too made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and what Denver got in return was a fourth round draft choice, which they eventually used to draft offensive lineman Mike Schnitker.

Saban did a lot of good things in bringing football respectability to Denver, but this trade was not one of them.

But let's not be greedy.

Denver is one of just four teams to make eight Super Bowl appearances and is one of just nine franchises to have won it three times, becoming a model NFL franchise and one of the most iconic sports teams in the nation.

But the draft breeze blows both ways, and the above are examples of why a team should work real hard but always stay humble in the building process.

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