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Sacco Sez: Broncos have great history with undrafted free agent players


The Denver Broncos just played the Arizona Cardinals to close out preseason for the 18th season, which is Denver's most common preseason finale matchup.

That means a few things.

It was hot as blazes in Arizona, the final cuts have just been made, and at least one undrafted free agent has made the final roster.

In this case, the most popular of them is Phillip Lindsay, a Denver native and Denver Public Schools product who had such a superb career at the University of Colorado.

As a college free agent, Lindsay carries on a great Broncos tradition with undrafted free agents, which goes all the way back to the team's beginnings.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Chris Harris Jr., a Super Bowl 50 champion and three-time Pro Bowler, who was an undrafted free agent out of Kansas.

Fans also know well the accomplishments of Shaquil Barrett on Denver's powerful defense.

But let's take a look at some of the other most-prominent college free agents in Broncos history.

Of the 28 non-coach or owner members of the Ring of Fame, there are four undrafted free agent members, including two that started for the Broncos in the inaugural 1960 season: wide receiver Rod Smith (a two-time Super Bowl champion), halfback/kicker Gene Mingo (who played football for United States Navy service teams after high school), end Lionel Taylor (the first player to catch 100 passes in a season and the first wide receiver to 500) and defensive end Rich Jackson (originally signed by the Oakland Raiders after not having been drafted in 1966).

The Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII champions included its fair share of undrafted free agents, including Smith and tight end Dwayne Carswell, as well as defensive ends Maa Tanuvasa and Harald Hasselbach.

The Super Bowl XII team in 1977 also included prominent undrafted free agents, including half of the starting linebackers in the Orange Crush defense.

Joe Rizzo came to Denver from the Merchant Marine Academy and to this day is the only pro player produced by the school, while Bob Swenson came from the powerful program at California, but both are proof of the axiom that the playing field is the greatest equalizer and meritocracy.

Defensive end Brison Manor, punter Bucky Dilts, and wide receiver Jack Dolbin, who came to the Broncos from the Pottstown Firebirds of semi pro fame, also were on that 1977 team. Dolbin, in fact, he is in the semi-pro Hall of Fame.

The best guys tend to make it, as did wide receivers Steve Watson and Billy Van Heusen, kickers Matt Prater, Rich Karlis, David Treadwell, Bobby Howfield and Wesley Woodyard.

John Bramlett, the former Broncos linebacker from 1965-66 and who was named runner-up AFL rookie of the year, and linebacker Jim Ryan, who started for the Broncos in Super Bowls XXI and XXII, were also undrafted free agents, as was hard-working run stopper Chip Myrtle back in the 1960s.

Lonnie Wright never played football at Colorado State, but he played two years at safety for the Broncos in his long career as a pro athlete, and cornerback Nemiah Wilson was a fine player here who was an AFL All-Star in 1967.

Center Keith Kartz was undrafted out of Cal and got his break here as a replacement player in 1987, eventually playing eight years for the Broncos and playing in two Super Bowls with Denver.

I could go on and on, but the reader gets the idea.

Some of these players are unfamiliar to the younger audience, but I can assure you they were outstanding players who contributed greatly to the Broncos' success over the years.

Collectively, they show that undrafted free agents have had personal glory and contributed to team success from 1960 to the present.

Many free agents, like all other players, make the team and play just a year or two.

But some go on to play in the Super Bowl and make the Ring of Fame.

You just never know, but the playing field is a meritocracy, and everybody in a uniform has a chance for great success.

So too will it be in 2018.

In the National Football League, opportunity is the golden ticket.

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