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Tales from the Draft: The scouting of Randy Gradishar and how Denver landed the leader of the 'Orange Crush'

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Ahead of the 1974 NFL Draft, Broncos Big Ten area scout Bill Daddio prepared his own prospect ranking.

His system was pretty simple. He preferred to assign players with numerical grade that could be as high as 1.0. Numbers that ascended from there suggesting declining talent and potential.

That year, Daddio's top three players all graded out at 1.1.

There was Ed "Too Tall" Jones of Tennessee State, who would be the No. 1 overall pick, and Ohio State's John Hicks, who was the 1973 Heisman Trophy runner-up as an offensive lineman. He would be drafted by the Giants with the third-overall pick.

And then there was Randy Gradishar, Hicks' teammate at Ohio State, who was a consensus All-American.

With the 14th-overall selection, the Broncos appeared to have little shot at Daddio's top-rated players, but by the time the team was on the clock, somehow Gradishar was still on the board.

Gradishar was an extremely intriguing player. The player that Buckeyes head coach Woody Hayes once called "the finest linebacker we've ever had" only started playing competitive football as a high school freshman, but he emerged as a key defensive cog as a junior. That year, he earned consensus All-America honors and put off surgery on a knee ligament to lead Ohio State into a Rose Bowl appearance. Soon after, he had the ligament repaired and was able to return for the entirety of his senior season, after which he was named a consensus All-American yet again.

Gradishar's talent appeared to place him firmly in the conversation to be a top-10 pick. In preparation for the draft, he hired a lawyer from Columbus to help him through the process; based on the lawyer's early investigations, he expected Gradishar to go fourth, fifth or eighth, Terry Frei reported in his book, "'77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age".

However, some teams had some lingering concerns about that knee injury. One team doctor's evaluation was clean. But another was more skeptical — even dismissive of Gradishar's own assertions — and word was getting around, Gradishar told Frei.

"Funny, but I never missed a practice and never missed a game my senior year," Gradishar later pointed out.

The Broncos, however, were only worried about whether Gradishar would last all the way to No. 14. Head coach and general manager John Ralston had called Hayes, who assured him he'd be able to play a decade and would be "the best player you've got," Ralston told Frei.

In an attempt to ensure Gradishar would be a Bronco, Denver attempted to trade into the top 10, but they were rebuffed as New Orleans made a deal with Detroit. All they could do was hope he'd still be there.

But worry turned to elation when the Saints, at No. 13, selected another Ohio State linebacker over Gradishar, leaving him for Ralston and the Broncos.

"Defensive coordinator Joe Collier came beaming out of John Ralston's office at 10:05 a.m. Tuesday and his wide smile told the whole story," The Denver Post's Dick Connor reported.

Even decades later — after Gradishar forged a career as the best inside linebacker in Broncos history with seven Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro nods and 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors — he recalled that moment as one of the top three of his career.

"My first memorable moment would be the draft in 1974," Gradishar told DenverBroncos.com in 2020. "I go back to when I was in high school. We didn't even start playing football until I was in ninth grade. I went to Ohio State, played in the Michigan game, played in the Rose Bowl game, became an All-American. Then I get a call from John Ralston. 'Hey, Randy, it's John Ralston with the Denver Broncos!' And so they drafted me in the first round. That was just a real blessing. I hadn't planned on being that. Coming out to Denver was just a real blessing."

And as for Daddio, the scout who graded Gradishar as one of the draft's three top prospects, he proved prescient even before the future leader of the Orange Crush defense played a single down in the NFL.

After the Broncos drafted Gradishar, Daddio was asked a simple question: Why Gradishar?

"Because he's great," Daddio answered. "There's no question in my mind he's one of the best linebackers ever to play at Ohio State. This kid was a starter for three years. He captained them this year, he's a fine student and a leader. He's got the size you look for, the smartness and he's a great hitter.

"This kid will play for us."

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