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Sacco Sez: The Broncos' history with the ninth-overall pick

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Draft mania once again has engulfed the NFL and its member clubs in its annual frenzy. The three-day event is the most watched NFL product on television aside from the games themselves.

This year, the Denver Broncos are picking in the ninth position, which is more than just the first round, although almost all of the conversation revolves around that top pick.

Will the Broncos trade up, trade down or stay where they are? Who will they take and how will that selection impact the future of the team?

The Broncos have had the ninth-overall selection twice previously, and each time the selection was a defining moment regarding that era in Broncos history, and as we shall see, the draft can have a long-term effect on a team's future.

The two times previously were back in 1965 and in 1973.

In 1965, the Broncos could not have been worse off.

They were a terrible team playing in Bears Stadium, a minor league baseball park that had added wooden seats for football. Their budget was nil and the entire situation was woeful.

They were not just a last-place team, but one that seemed to get worse every year. In 1964, they had been so desperate for a quarterback that they traded their first-round draft choice in 1965 along with American Football League all-star defensive tackle Bud McFadin to the Houston Oilers for the rights to quarterback Jacky Lee — for only two years.  

In other words, Denver was so desperate that they traded what ended up being one of the first picks and and all-star for two years of Lee, after which he would return to the Oilers.

Needless to say, that worked out horribly, and part of the deal was that Denver did not have a first-round draft choice in 1965.

There were eight teams in the AFL then, and the Broncos finished with the league's worst record in 1964, so they had the first pick in the draft.

Except they didn't, because they had traded it.

So the ninth pick in the 1965 AFL Draft, which was the first selection of the second round, was actually Denver's first pick that year.

At that time, the AFL and NFL each had separate drafts and were very competitive financially, though that was an area in which the Broncos were not very competitive at all, and the guys who ran the team knew it.

So with the ninth-overall selection, the first in the second round, the Broncos selected future Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus of Illinois.

But the rest of the story was that the Broncos administrators knew that no matter who they chose, they had no chance whatsoever of signing the player. In fact, Denver never signed a first round choice until the merger and subsequent common draft, when they acquired Floyd Little.

The Broncos decided their only hope of anything with their first choice in 1965 was public relations in the city.  

They knew, along with every team in football, that Butkus would stay in Illinois and sign with the Chicago Bears. He certainly had no thought of joining the most ragtag franchise in the game, though he was kind enough in the papers.

"Chicago's my home and, all things being equal, I probably would prefer to play with the Bears," Butkus said in an Associated Press wire story. "But there are other things to be considered.

"Most people think that I already am sewed up for the Bears. They can think it if they want to, but it isn't so. As far as I'm concerned, it's still wide open."

So the Broncos announced they would pay whatever the price to get him, knowing they did not have the money but that it would not matter because he was not coming here. No matter what.

"We have an idea that he wants to play in Chicago," Denver GM Cal Kunz said in a Nov. 29, 1964 Denver Post article. "But we made him an offer he can't refuse."

Somehow, he did. And instead, Butkus signed with Chicago and became perhaps the best middle linebacker in football history.

But as I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of symbolism in how they treated the ninth spot.

The draft was 20 rounds in the AFL at that time, and the Broncos made 19 overall selections.

Of those 19 selections, just five ended up logging at least one game for Denver. Only two of them — tackle Bob Breitenstein and defensive lineman Max Leetzow — started at least 20 career games for the Broncos. Leetzow, hampered by injuries, played two seasons for the Broncos and Breitenstein played two and change for Denver before being traded in the middle of the 1967 season.

So 19 choices, two starting players, and their careers lasted no more than five pro seasons.

That pretty much sums up what the Broncos were the first time they had the ninth pick in the draft.

The second time was in 1973.

The late (and great) John Ralston was in his second year as head coach/general manager, and he produced the single greatest draft in Broncos history, in terms of impacting the entire status of the franchise.

Denver had not had a winning season before 1973, and has hardly had any losing seasons since — of course, we all know about the crushing disappointment of the last several years.

But back in 1973, Ralston began by picking Otis Armstrong with Denver's first-round selection, the ninth-overall pick.

Armstrong became a Pro Bowler, led the NFL in 1974, and was a pivotal figure on Denver's offense when the Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XII.

In fact, when Denver needed a key first down to clinch victory in the AFC Championship Game vs. Oakland, they gave the ball to Armstrong on third-and-3. He picked up four yards and Denver won.

Ralston described him as "the greatest draw-play runner in pro football."

Otis is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and I well remember his class that night at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when he was inducted. 

But that draft did not end with Armstrong.

The Broncos took defensive end Barney Chavous in the second round, guard Paul Howard in the third and linebacker Tom Jackson in the fourth.

All were starters in that Super Bowl XII season, and Jackson and Howard were still Broncos mainstays when the team went to Super Bowl XXI a decade later.

That draft was 17 rounds, and other players who made the team from that draft included defensive lineman John Grant, tackle Mike Askea, linebacker Jim O'Malley, defensive end Ed Smith, quarterback John Hufnagel (who went on to a great career as a quarterback and head coach in the Canadian Football League), cornerback Calvin Jones and running back Oliver Ross.

Seventeen rounds, eleven players.

All did not have extensive careers here, of course, but those first four guys were the cornerstones of a franchise that became the perennial championship contenders that set the standard of victory that remains with Broncos Country today. 

Sometimes the symbolism is the standard for reality.

Winning is the standard in Denver, regardless of the last four years (we actually went 9-7 five years ago, albeit with no playoff appearance).

And now here we are in 2021, in the ninth selection spot once again.

I have no doubt that we will do well overall in selecting players from that ninth position, but of course the big question is what do we do in the first round?

I have no idea who will join us from that spot, but I do know the symbolism will once again set the standard for reality, and the expectation of Broncos Country has been set by those seasons from 1973 until now.

Eight Super Bowl appearances, 10 AFC Championship appearances, 15 AFC Western Division titles, 22 playoff berths and 29 winning seasons.

That body of work could add considerable pressure to incoming talent, but this is the standard in the Mile High City, and that 1973 draft was the one that paved the way.

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