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Broncos top 10 draft classes -- No. 5: 1973

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Highlights:

RB Otis Armstrong (round 1, No. 9 overall)
DE Barney Chavous (round 2, No. 36 overall)
G Paul Howard (round 3, No. 54 overall)
LB Tom Jackson (Round 4, No. 88 overall)

The 1972 draft was John Ralston's first as Broncos head coach and general manager. In those days, the draft was held around the end of January into the beginning of February, so Ralston had fewer than four full weeks to prepare for the draft. Ralston picked TE Riley Odoms with the No. 5 overall selection and added contributors like Tom Graham and Larry Brunson in subsequent rounds.

But it was the 1973 draft that got the Broncos on the road to long-term success, beginning with their first-ever winning season that year. Armstrong, Chavous, Howard and Jackson were four of Ralston's first five picks; each became long-term contributors -- and in the cases of Chavous, Howard and Jackson, the Broncos got three core starters who played well into the Dan Reeves era.

Armstrong quickly took the baton from Floyd Little and galloped with it. By his second season, he was a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro selection with a Broncos single-season record 1,407 yards that would remain a team record for 22 years. He returned to the Pro Bowl after the 1976 season, his second 1,000-yard campaign, and overall led the Broncos in rushing four times (1974, 1976, 1977 and 1979). He retired with the second-highest rushing total in Broncos history (4,453 yards); he still ranks fourth.

Jackson was joined by Randy Gradishar a year later, and together the two helped the Broncos have one of the league's best linebacking corps for the next decade. Jackson was the perfect linebacker for Joe Collier's scheme; he was perfectly versatile, and equally capable of making plays in coverage (20 interceptions) and in the pass rush (44 career sacks) as he was against the run. His 169 tackles in 1980 were a career high.

Chavous delivered perennially prolific pass-rushing work from up front. When he retired after the 1985 season, his 75 sacks (including sacks before it was an official stat in 1982) was a Broncos record. He still ranks third in team history, behind Simon Fletcher and Karl Mecklenburg.

Howard became a full-time starter in his third season (1975), and after missing the 1976 season because of a back injury, was a mainstay at right guard for the next decade.

How durable were Chavous, Howard and Jackson? Consider that after Howard and Jackson retired following the 1986 season, this is how the Broncos' all-time games-played list looked:

  1. Tom Jackson, 191 GP
  2. Paul Howard, 187 GP
  3. Barney Chavous, 182 GP

Ralston's 1973 class was the gift that kept on giving, bridging eras of Broncos history.

Also of note:

Howard was selected with a pick acquired from the Browns in exchange for Ring of Famer Rich "Tombstone" Jackson four games into the 1972 season. Ralston said at the time he made the trade because Jackson had not fully recovered from a knee injury suffered in 1971, adding that "He just hasn't been playing like the Rich Jackson everybody remembers." Jackson played just 10 games in Cleveland before the injury forced him into an all-too-soon retirement.

Ralston also sent a sixth-round pick in 1973 to the Steelers for center Bobby Maples; he started from 1973-76.

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