ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Peyton Manning and John Lynch were officially announced as members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021, it continued a run of recent success for the Broncos.
Over the last five years, no team has had more Hall of Fame selections than the Broncos' six. In 2017, Terrell Davis earned a gold jacket. Two years later, Champ Bailey and Pat Bowlen were enshrined in Canton. And just last year, Steve Atwater gained long-awaited election to the Hall.
The Broncos now have 10 representatives in the Hall of Fame, as well as several other players who competed with Denver for short stints.
The work, though, is not done. The previous five years have been an outlier in the Broncos' history, as Denver did not have a single player in the Hall of Fame until John Elway was enshrined in 2004. Through the first 51 years of the organization's existence, only Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Floyd Little and Shannon Sharpe gained admittance.
With the enshrinements for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 still on the horizon, we're taking a look ahead to the Class of 2022 and which Broncos could be next on the list to earn pro football's greatest individual honor.
Despite spending just three seasons in Denver, Ware left a major impact on the Broncos via both his leadership and his play. Ware earned a pair of Pro Bowl nods in 2014 and 2015, and he tallied 21.5 sacks and three forced fumbles during his three seasons with the team. During the Broncos' three-game postseason run to Super Bowl 50, Ware recorded 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and one fumble recovery. He also served as a mentor to Von Miller and other members of the Broncos' defense.
Ware's four first-team All-Pro nods and nine total Pro Bowl appearances make him a strong candidate to be elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible as a Modern-Era player later this year. His 138.5 career sacks rank ninth in NFL history, and he earned a place as a second-team member of the Hall of Fame's 2000s All-Decade team. Every other eligible player who ranks in the Top 10 in sacks — and three other rushers in the Top 20 — are already in the Hall of Fame.
Ware's competition among first-time eligible players includes Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Devin Hester and Robert Mathis, among others. Jared Allen could also merit strong consideration after failing to gain admission as a first-ballot player in 2021. He has just 2.5 fewer career sacks than Ware, and he has the same number of first-team All-Pro selections.
Gradishar's path to the Hall is far more difficult than Ware's, as the NFL only presents three Seniors candidates every two years. In 2022, the Seniors Committee will present two nominees out of a vast pool to be finalists for the Class of 2022. Gradishar's time may be coming, though.
In 2020, the Hall of Fame created a Centennial Slate to help clear a backlog of players who continue to wait to be elected. Ten players from the Seniors category — which is comprised of players who played at least 25 years ago — were elected to the Hall of Fame that year, and Gradishar was among the 20 finalists.
Dallas' Drew Pearson earned the Seniors Committee's nod in 2021, but only nine Centennial Slate finalists remain outside the doors of Canton. Gradishar's resume stacks up well against any player against whom he may be compared. The leader of the Orange Crush defense, Gradishar earned seven Pro Bowl nods and was the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year during his 10 years in Denver. The former 14th-overall pick totaled 20 interceptions, 13 fumbles recoveries and four defensive touchdowns during his career, and he earned five total All-Pro team nods. If Gradishar gains election in 2022, he would be the first member of the Orange Crush defense to gain admittance to the Hall. The dominant group helped guide the Broncos to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1977.
The Broncos' most recent Ring of Famer, Shanahan is the winningest coach in Broncos history and led the team to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s. During his 14 seasons as the team's head coach, Shanahan guided the team to three conference championship berths, seven postseason appearances and nine winning seasons. The team had the fourth-best regular-season record and best home record during the Shanahan era, and led the league in total offense and rushing offense while ranking third in points per game.
Denver was borderline dominant from 1996-98, as the Broncos were the first team to win 46 games in a three-year stretch and became the second team to win every home game in three consecutive seasons. Denver also tied the NFL's all-time record for consecutive wins as they won 18 consecutive games.
Shanahan is one of just six head coaches to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and he is only of just 13 head coaches to win at least two Super Bowls. Only Shanahan, George Siefert and Tom Coughlin remain outside of the Hall, among those who are not active. He ranks in the top 15 in NFL history in career wins, and he is also one of just six coaches in NFL history with more than 200 total wins and multiple world championships with a single team.
Shanahan has also left an impact on the game far beyond his own coaching tenure, as his offensive system remains a staple in the NFL.
Another finalist for the Centennial Slate, the Broncos' Ring of Fame coach led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances and also led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance later in his career. Although the Broncos did not win a Super Bowl during Reeves' tenure, he won 110 regular-season games in Denver and 190 total during his career. He also guided the Broncos to five division titles, which is the most by any coach in the team's history.
Reeves' 110 regular-season wins and seven playoff wins rank only behind Shanahan in team history. During his 12 seasons with the Broncos, the team had just two losing seasons, and he guided the team to three Super Bowl appearances in four years in the late 1980s. Between his stints as a player, assistant coach and head coach, he has appeared in nine Super Bowls, which is surpassed only by Bill Belichick in the coaching ranks. Reeves became just the third coach in NFL history to lead multiple franchises to a Super Bowl appearance when he steered the Falcons to their Super Bowl XXXIII matchup with the Broncos.