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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos' drafts in the 1970s built a foundation for greatness

These 20 draft classes, sorted by year, represent many of the Broncos' best draft classes, largely based on Pro Football Reference's weighted career approximate value calculation. However, we also included some draft classes where it felt like the calculation didn't quite capture their entire value.

Every Broncos fan is well aware that the NFL Draft is on the horizon and that the Broncos have one of the most dominant records in pro football over the last 40 years.

I am well aware that the last three seasons are not to our standards, but there is no question about the overall record of the franchise.

And now, the draft is a major component of building a team, along with free agency, and the occasional trade.

But back in the day, building was done through the draft almost exclusively, as there was no free agency in pro football.

The Broncos did not have a winning season from their inception in 1960 through 1972, a span of 13 long, losing seasons.

The AFL-NFL merger led to a common draft, so general manager and head coach Lou Saban was able to at least set a foundation in place in the late 1960s, but it was the arrival of John Ralston in that same role that turned the roster around.

Ralston was the general manager and head coach from 1972-76, and since there was no free agency at that time, it meant that players pretty much stayed with a team unless they were cut or, in just a few cases, traded — or until they retired. So if you had success in the draft, repeatedly, you could build a contending team, even a championship team.

And that was what John Ralston did.

There were 17 rounds in the draft during the five seasons of the Ralston regime, and he truly built the roster that would lay the foundation for greatness for the Denver Broncos.

It is always easier to add pieces once you have established the base, and "J.R." established the base.

Here are the starters — and other key contributors — for the Broncos who was drafted by Ralston in that five year period. Super Bowl XII starters are denoted by one asterisk and players who were on the active roster for the game are denoted by two asterisks.

1972 NFL Draft

  • Riley Odoms*, the Broncos' first-round pick in 1972, went on to be a Pro Bowl tight end and started in Super Bowl XII.
  • Tom Graham, a fourth-round choice, was a starting linebacker before being traded to Kansas City.
  • The Broncos' 1972 selections also included Jim Krieg, a wide receiver from Washington.

1973 NFL Draft

The 1973 draft was a virtual treasure trove:

  • Otis Armstrong*, the first-round pick, was twice a 1,000-yard rusher and a key member of the Super Bowl XII team.
  • Barney Chavous* was the Broncos' second-round pick, and "The Great Yard" (as in "Barnyard" — nicknames take some odd twists) was a valuable defensive end for many years.
  • Paul Howard* was a third-round pick, a stalwart player at guard for over a decade.
  • Tom Jackson*, the legendary Ring of Famer, was taken in the fourth round and played in Super Bowl XXI in addition to XII.
  • Defensive end John Grant** was taken from USC in Round 7.
  • Other 1973 draftees who contributed included LB Jim O'Malley (12th), QB John Hufnagel (14th), CB Calvin Jones (15th) and RB Oliver Ross (15th).

1974 NFL Draft

  • In 1974 Ralston's first round pick was Randy Gradishar*, whom Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes had dubbed "the best linebacker I ever coached." Randy, of course, is in the Ring of Fame.
  • Third-round pick Claudie Minor* became a fixture at left tackle.
  • Tight end Boyd Brown (17th round) was a three-year contributor for the team.

1975 NFL Draft

  • In 1975, the Broncos again drafted a future Ring of Famer in the first round, Louis Wright*, the magnificent cornerback from San Jose State. He started in Super Bowl XXI in addition to XII.
  • Another Ring of Famer came along in Round 4: two-time NFL All-Decade Team selection Rick Upchurch**.
  • Rubin Carter*, the prototype nose tackle in pro football when the league went to the 3-4, was drafted in Round 5.
  • Steve Foley*, the Broncos' all-time interception leader with 44, was drafted in the eighth round and started in two Super Bowls for the Broncos (XII and XXI).

1976 NFL Draft

  • In 1976, Ralston turned his attention to the offensive line in the first round and selected superb technician guard Tom Glassic*.
  • Fourth-round choice QB Craig Penrose** was a valuable backup.
  • Fifth-round choice Lonnie Perrin** was an outstanding running back and kickoff man (SB XII).
  • In the 14th round, Denver took valuable backup linebacker and special teams ace Larry Evans** (also known as "Choctaw," as he went to Mississippi College, and that was their nickname, hence that's what I still call him). 

Then, time moved on, and so did John Ralston, who left following the 1976 season.

But his Broncos had the team's first winning season in 1973 and two more in his five years at the helm.

They played the Oakland Raiders for the AFC West title in the final game of 1973 but did not win.

However, that was a harbinger of things to come for the Broncos' roster, which Ralston built through the draft.

Many more players have since come to the Mile High City, and now Denver boasts three world championships, eight Super Bowl appearances, 10 AFC Championship Games, 15 AFC West titles, 22 playoff berths and a total of 29 winning seasons.

But it all starts with the roster, and now as then, the roster starts with the draft.

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