Take a look back through Ring of Famer Dennis Smith's outstanding Broncos career.
In our Broncos Legends series, we're revisiting the careers of some of the best players in franchise history with video highlights and rarely seen photos — and they'll join us to break down their favorite moments as a Bronco and more. Here's a refresher on Dennis Smith's time in Denver.
As Dan Reeves approached his first season as the Broncos' head coach, all indications were that Denver would use its first pick in the 1981 NFL Draft on someone who could help improve a stagnant offense. After all, Reeves was a former offensive coordinator and the Broncos ranked 25th out of 28 teams in yards gained in 1980.
Instead, Reeves and Co. selected former USC safety Dennis Smith at 15th overall. The pick was a little bit of surprise; the Broncos' defensive backfield featured Super Bowl XII starters Billy Thompson, a future Ring of Famer, and Steve Foley. Still, the Broncos felt they could not pass on Smith.
"I'm really excited about him, because we had him rated very high," Reeves said after the draft. "He's a legitimate 4.5[-second 40-yard dash] guy, which is great speed, and he's also a 7-foot-2 high jumper. He's just a great athlete. Dennis Smith is the type of football player who can step right in."
Over the next 14 years, Smith would prove Reeves absolutely correct.
The six-time Pro Bowler came into his own in the mid-1980s as a rangy defender always willing to devastate opponents with a big hit. In 1987, longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier said of Smith, "He's our kingpin. He's our top run defender." On a defense that also featured the likes of Karl Mecklenburg and Tom Jackson, that should be considered a pretty significant feat.
Once the Broncos added another heavy-hitting safety in 1989 when they drafted Steve Atwater, Smith would really hit his groove. Starting with that season, he made three consecutive Pro Bowls and added another in 1993 to bring his career total to six.
And though Smith also had soft hands — he had 30 career interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries — his key skill was a penchant for timely and crushing hits that energized his teammates and terrorized opponents.
By his final season in 1994, Smith's reputation preceded him. That year, he had missed the Broncos' first three games as he and the team negotiated a new contract. They settled on a deal just in time for him to return for a Week 4 game against the 1991 NFL MVP Thurman Thomas and the Bills.
"That's something I didn't want to hear, because the guy has been a pain every time we've played them," Thomas said at the time. "I'm not intimidated by him; he just scares the hell out of me."
Ring of Fame inductee (2001), three AFC titles, five AFC West championships, six Pro Bowls (1985-86, '89-91, '93), 1989 October AFC Defensive Player of the Month
Stats to know
Career stats: 184 regular-season games, 170 starts, 1,171 total tackles, 30 interceptions (431 return yards), 15 sacks, 17 fumble recoveries, one defensive touchdown
In his own words
Smith on his playing style:
"I think I was an all-around defensive back. I don't even like to call myself a safety — strong safety or free safety — because I played all the positions. It was fun for me. And Joe Collier, who was the defensive coordinator at the time, once he found out that you could do more, he made you do more. They realized … I was pretty good covering the slot position, so on third downs I was the fifth defensive back, the third corner on the field. Once he figured out I could do it, I did for the first part of my career. I was able to go to the Pro Bowl two years just playing basically a safety and a corner. I took pride in just being able to play all the different positions and bring a lot of different things to the game and to our team. It was very impactful on us winning games. I would consider myself just an all-around player.
"And as I got older and evolved, I realized that the big hits, I could do that too. I knew that from college, but when I was able to focus on just playing safety, I could really make that a bigger part of my game, and that's what I did. If you look at my career, early I didn't wear a neck roll and I was covering wide receivers and I had to be able to maneuver and move a lot faster, but once I got back in the safety position exclusively, I had a neck roll. And that really helped me, because I had a lot of big collisions. It was interesting how my career evolved. Those big hits didn't take a toll on me early in my career, but they took a toll on me late in my career."
Three games to remember
Week 10, 1984: Broncos 26, Patriots 19
Smith showed up in the clutch for the Broncos in this one. After John Elway engineered a game-tying touchdown drive with about four minutes left, the Patriots had a shot to close out the game. They marched down the field to the Denver 37-yard line, but as New England's running back tried to turn the corner, he fumbled. Smith was there to pick up the ball, and he returned it 64 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Week 7, 1989: Broncos 24, Seahawks 21
As part of a stretch that earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Month, Smith particularly made his impact felt during this road game in Seattle's hostile Kingdome. After making five tackles and forcing a fumble in regulation, Smith saved the game for Denver in overtime with an interception. He returned it 28 yards to the Seattle 10-yard line, and one play later, David Treadwell nailed the game-winning field goal.
1989 AFC Championship: Broncos 37, Browns 21
After two nail-biting victories over the Browns in the 1986 and 1987 AFC Championships, Dennis Smith helped ensure the third time was much easier. He picked off Bernie Kosar twice, including once in the fourth quarter to help extend Denver's lead and ensure a trip to Super Bowl XXIV.