Over the course of their nearly 55- year history, the Denver Broncos have employed an number of gifted athletes. Today, we at Mile High Huddle continue our celebration of the franchise by counting down the top-five players at each position in team history. These ratings are based off of statistical greatness and film study. Longevity will play little to no factor.
Today, we’ll be looking at the top-five safeties in Broncos history. We won’t differentiate between free safeties and strong safeties. Instead, if they had an “S” next to their name, they’ll be included on this list. The Broncos have had a number of Pro Bowl and All-Pro safeties in their history. Sorting out the best of the best wasn’t an easy job, but somebody has to do it. It should be noted that some players will be listed with an “unknown” number of tackles.
No. 5: John Lynch
(2004-2007): 195 tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 forced fumbles.
John Lynch will be a hall of Famer before long, and while the voters likely won’t think of the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer as a Bronco, they ought to. Lynch did some of his best work during his four seasons in Denver. During his 11 years in Tampa, Lynch recorded seven forced fumbles. In Denver, he recorded nine.
John Lynch was one of the last great hard-hitting strong safeties in the game. Today, his highlight reel looks like one personal foul after another. During his career, there were few safeties more feared than Lynch, and his time in Denver played a key role in developing that reputation.
No. 4: Billy Thompson
(1969-1981): unknown tackles, 40 interceptions, 0 forced fumbles.
Billy Thompson spent his entire 13-year career in Denver, redefining the safety position. Drafted in the third round of the 1969 NFL draft out of Eastern Shore University, Thompson spent 13 years manning the backend of the Denver Broncos defense.
During his career, Thompson was elected to three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team. He spent the first several years of his career in Denver at cornerback, before transitioning to safety. He became the team’s first real hard-hitting free safety and redefined that position, leading the way for players like John Lynch and Steve Atwater, who would come after him.
No. 3: Goose Gonsoulin
(1960-1967): unknown tackles, 43 interceptions, unknown forced fumbles.
One of the Broncos original safeties, Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin was one of the few bright spots on those terrible Broncos defenses of the 1960s. Gonsoulin was a force to be reckoned with in the secondary, making the Pro Bowl in all but one of his Broncos seasons. He was a two-time All-Pro, and when he left the Broncos, he was the AFL’s all-time interceptions leader.
Gonsoulin was a real AFL iron man. At one time in his career, he started a remarkable 61 consecutive games. In preparation for the AFL-NFL merger, Gonsoulin was named to the 1970 AFL all-time team. In 1984, Gonsoulin was inducted into the Denver Broncos ring of fame.
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No. 2: Dennis Smith
(1981-1994): 1,152 tackles, 30 interceptions, 1 forced fumbles.
If you had asked Broncos fans what they thought about Dennis Smith in 1983, two years into his NFL career, their answer probably wouldn’t have a positive one. Smith struggled with injuries and inconsistent play in his first two years out of USC. However, by the end of his career, Smith was thought of as the best safety to ever wear Orange and Blue.
Smith was a six time Pro Bowler, an AP second team All-Pro in 1989, and is a 2001 inductee of the Broncos Ring of Fame. Over the course of his 14 seasons in Denver, Smith developed a reputation as one of the hardest hitting ball hawks in the NFL.
No. 1: Steve Atwater
(1989-1998): 1,038 tackles, 24 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles. `
Steve Atwater was the fiercest player in the Broncos secondary at a time when their secondary was pretty darn fierce. During his 10 seasons in Denver, Atwater was elected to eight Pro Bowl teams, two All-Pro rosters, and became one of the most well-respected safeties in the NFL.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Atwater was his durability. Atwater missed just five games in his entire Broncos career. He was also a key component to the Broncos winning back-to-back Super Bowls in '97 and '98. His resume earned him a place in the Ring of Fame in 2001, and very well could find him enshrined in Canton, OH.