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Tales from the Draft: How free agency misfortune turned into a decade of success with the selection of Steve Atwater

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As the Broncos entered the final year of the 1980s and as a new decade approached, the franchise hoped to reverse its fortunes.

Denver was only about a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance, but the Broncos had since slid, falling to a .500 season in 1988 in which they ranked in the bottom half in scoring offense and defense. So, with less than a month before the 1989 NFL Draft, the Broncos had their eye on a future Pro Football Famer — but not in the draft.

Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith, fresh off back-to-back first-team All-Pro seasons, was about to enter the NFL's "Plan B" free agency, instituted that February. Broncos head coach Dan Reeves and his staff hoped that they could bring in the young, dominant defensive playmaker as an antidote to the pass-rushing weakness that had allowed Doug Williams to pick them apart in Super Bowl XXII.

Reeves & Co. put in their bid to Smith, one that that would make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Cost was of little concern, though — Dick Connor of The Denver Post wrote a column the following day titled, "Bills' Smith is a steal no matter the price". Smith, for his part, was ready to accept, too: "I'm looking forward to coming to Denver," he said. "I'd really like to get a new start in Denver."

However, Buffalo still had the ability to keep their rising star. Smith, under the new free-agency framework, was one of the players for whom the Bills chose to retain the right of first refusal; Buffalo would have the chance to match Denver's offer. If they declined, the Broncos would have to compensate them for their loss with their first-round picks in the 1989 and 1990 NFL Drafts.

Instead, the Bills squashed the opportunity, matched the Broncos' contract and Smith went on to become the franchise's — and the NFL's — all-time leader in sacks.

Denver, meanwhile, kept its first-round draft picks, including the one that would help bring Steve Atwater to Denver.

The Broncos' focus remained on defensive players, particularly at safety.

The general consensus was that the two top safeties were Atwater and Florida's Louis Oliver, though not in that order. Oliver had the better measurables, especially in regard to speed. His 40-yard-dash time was clocked at 4.37, while Atwater's lagged well behind.

On draft day, expectations separated from reality. The Broncos traded down from their spot at No. 13 and instead picked at No. 20. Somehow, Oliver was available still even there.

"I expected him to go in the first 10," Atwater later said. "When they got to 19 and I hadn't heard his name, I got worried."

Inside Broncos headquarters, there was a debate over the two players. Reeves later said they had rated the two players "side by side." To resolve the issue, he impressed upon new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and defensive backs coach Charlie Waters for their thoughts.

"That was a big discussion," Reeves said. "By taking into consideration instincts and leadership, we thought we should take Steve."

During the process, the Broncos also relied on what they'd seen during the months leading up to the draft. Atwater had played in the East-West Shrine Game and been named the game's defensive player of the game after picking off two passes.

"First thing is, Steve Atwater's a guy of extreme intelligence," Reed Johnson, then Denver's director of player personnel, told The Gazette's Mike Burrows. "Second thing is, he's very aggressive with a good nature. We got that feeling when we scouted the East-West game.

"I mean, the guy just flat KO'd everybody that got in his way. Jacking their jaw, if you know what I mean. And that's without anybody telling him what to do. He's got great control of his body. He's not as stiff as Oliver, even though Oliver can run a whole lot faster."

And how much faster was a matter of debate in itself. That kind of 4.37 speed can ensnare plenty of NFL decision-makers during the NFL Draft. Atwater did not have that, but a Broncos scout named Ron Hill did what he could to make it as close as possible when he went to a workout at Arkansas to watch Atwater run a 40-yard dash.

"He wasn't a speed guy. But he ran pretty good that day in Arkansas," Hill told The Gazette's Paul Klee in 2021. "I made sure of that. … In the 4.5s on my clock. I don't think he'd ever run a 4.6 before that."

Today, that difference would probably still draw concerns, but at the time, the Broncos were willing to look past it.

"I don't know how fast he is," Waters said after the draft," but if it's 4.5 or 4.6, that's what it is when he's out there on the field with his pads on, too.

"It's not how fast you are. It's how quick you can get there, and Steve can get there."

Between the leadership traits, his quick comprehension and ability to change direction, the Broncos made up their mind and, as Burrows wrote, were "alarmingly infatuated with Atwater."

"He's an all-around player, a great hitter with great judgment," Phillips told Burrows. "All I know is that Atwater is a football player and that we have to get him on the field.

"We wanted size and hitting strength defensively, and we got that in Steve Atwater. His feel for the game is just what we're looking for. He can play strong safety or free safety without any problem. He's fluid and a real force."

Their decision, however questionable at the time to outsiders, has looked genius since.

Atwater became a starter immediately and helped generate a remarkable shift on defense. In Atwater's rookie season, Denver improved from 20th in scoring defense to first and last in rushing yards allowed per attempt to seventh as the Broncos marched back to the Super Bowl.

Over his 10 years in Denver, Atwater racked up eight Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro nods and was a key part of the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl championship squads. In Super Bowl XXXII, which ESPN's Adam Schefter has called "the finest game that any safety in any Super Bowl ever has played," Atwater stuffed the stat sheet with six solo tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and two passes defensed.

In the end, the Broncos accomplished exactly what they had set out to do when they prepared for the 1989 offseason, even if it wasn't how they originally planned it. They added a Pro Football Hall of Fame talent on defense and, in the process, they reshaped the Broncos' fortunes for the next decade.

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