The best first seasons in Broncos history: Honorable mentions
Russell Wilson is likely to be a transformative piece to the Broncos’ puzzle in 2022. But he has a lot to do to post the best first season as a Bronco in team history.
Consider this: He has never been a first-team All-Pro. Four first-year Broncos were first-team All-Pros, as well as Pro Bowlers. So, by at least one measure, he has to do something he’s never accomplished to reach the top of the Broncos’ newcomer hill.
In the weeks leading up to training camp, we’ll get to those players as we count down the best first seasons in Broncos history.
Today, we’ll look at the honorable-mention players — those whose first seasons were among the best in team history, but just missed the cut for the top five.
CB/PR DARRIEN GORDON, 1997
Even in the Broncos’ wildest dreams for fifth-round returner Montrell Washington, they can’t imagine him having the type of impact that Gordon did on punt returns in 1997, his first year with the Broncos after signing as a free agent from San Diego.
Gordon scored three times — including twice in a single game against Carolina. He averaged 13.6 yards per punt return in the regular season and 17.3 yards in the playoffs, including a 36-yard runback. And then on defense, Gordon added four interceptions in the regular season and a game-clinching pass breakup to seal the divisional-round win at Kansas City.
How extraordinary was Gordon’s tally of 4 total touchdowns — including a pick-6? Consider this: In the Super Bowl era — since 1966 — he’s one of just 11 defensive players league-wide with at least 4 touchdowns without one coming on offense. Gordon’s first season in orange and blue was unlike any other in Broncos history. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 17
RB CLINTON PORTIS, 2002
It was obvious in training camp that Portis, then a second-round rookie, was the most dynamic back the Broncos had. Terrell Davis’ knee ached; he would retire before the regular season. Olandis Gary was solid, but unspectacular. Mike Anderson added weight and was locked in at the fullback to get more snaps, but he wasn’t a breakaway threat.
It was only a matter of time before Portis burst through and seized the job.
And even though Portis didn’t start until the fifth game of the season, it was clear he was the alpha in Week 1. With fourth-and-1 at the Denver 38-yard line and the Broncos clinging to a 16-13 fourth-quarter lead over the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams, Mike Shanahan called Portis’ number. The two previous plays — handoffs to Gary and Anderson — yielded just a single yard. But Portis galloped 15 yards, and the Broncos hit the end zone four plays later.
From Week 8 through the end of his rookie season, Portis was the best back in football. He racked up 15 touchdowns and 1,084 rushing yards in those nine games — a 1,927-yards-per-16-games pace. He remains the last Broncos running back to rush for at least 1,500 yards in a season, reaching that standard in 2002 and 2003. No one has come within 250 yards of that since. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 15
LT RYAN CLADY, 2008
As a rookie in Shanahan’s final Broncos season as head coach, Clady probably should have been a Pro Bowler. He replaced the retired Matt Lepsis and provided the Broncos their most overpowering play at left tackle since the salad days of Gary Zimmerman, allowing only a half-sack in the entire season.
Clady finished third in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, trailing only a pair of skill-position players: Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and Tennessee RB Chris Johnson.
The recognition Clady deserved as a rookie came in 2009, when he was a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. But he tore his patellar tendon the following spring while playing basketball. He didn’t miss any games in 2010, but wasn’t his old self.
And while he would return to All-Pro status by 2012, injuries were a constant companion. He dealt with a right-shoulder injury in the 2013 offseason, missed all but two games in 2013 due to a Lisfranc injury and sat out all of 2015 because of a torn ACL suffered in an OTA.
A torn rotator cuff with the New York Jets in 2016 was the end of the line for a career that might have ended in Canton if not for the injuries. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 14
LT GARY ZIMMERMAN, 1993
There isn’t enough reflection on 1993. It was the year that the modern NFL took shape, since the current form of free agency debuted that spring. The salary cap arrived one year later. Roster construction would never be the same.
And for the Broncos, 1993 was also the year that their offense modernized and finally began maximizing John Elway. Wade Phillips replaced Dan Reeves as head coach, hired Jim Fassel as head coach and turned him loose. West Coast principles arrived. As Fassel told the Associated Press during training camp, “This is the 49er-style offense that Bill Walsh developed, but good grief, it was three or four years before he got his group clicking on all cylinders.”
Yet thanks to Elway’s skill and a handful of imports, the Broncos offense exploded right away. None of the newcomers made a greater impact than Gary Zimmerman, whose holdout in Minnesota spurred a trade to the Broncos.
Zimmerman protected Elway’s blind side, giving him time to operate that he had rarely had before. His ex-Vikings teammate, Brian Habib, worked at right guard after joining as a free agent. Another free-agent pickup, Rod Bernstine, led the team in rushing and ranked second in receptions.
With a stable line anchored by Zimmerman and Elway unharnessed by Fassel’s scheme, the Broncos improved from 21st to 5th in total offense and 22nd to 3rd in scoring offense. Elway had career highs in passing yardage and completions while throwing more touchdown passes (25) than he did in the previous two seasons combined (23).
Zimmerman didn’t make the Pro Bowl in his first Broncos season, but he did in the following three years. Denver didn’t have to worry about left tackle until Zimmerman retired in 1997, although he came out of retirement two games into that season. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 14
WR EMMANUEL SANDERS, 2014
Poised to sign with the Chiefs in March 2014, Sanders was sitting at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium complex when word of the Broncos’ interest reached his agent. He left Kansas City’s headquarters without a deal. The Chiefs could only sigh like a high-pressure car salesperson who can’t convince a customer to buy right then and there. A day later, Sanders stood at the lectern in the Broncos’ team room after signing a three-year, $15-million deal.
By the end of the 2014 season, that contract was a bargain. Sanders shattered his previous career highs he posted in receptions, yards and touchdowns in Pittsburgh, where he was usually the No. 3 option.
Sanders’ cap figure for 2014 was third-highest among Broncos receivers, behind Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas. But most significantly, his $5 million average per year was $2.25 million less than the Jets gave Eric Decker just days earlier. Decker flourished for the Broncos, especially after Peyton Manning’s 2012 arrival. But the Broncos were reassessing their financial commitments relative to building the overall roster. GM John Elway wanted more resources to shore up a defense that buckled and eventually collapsed in 2013. Thus, they spent heavily on DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. That proved to be a prudent choice.
Believe it or not, there was a question on Sanders that kept his contract value below that of Decker: Could he make the level jump from No. 3 to No. 2 — or even No. 1? He answered that emphatically, and eventually earned an extension from the Broncos. He remained a Bronco for five-and-a-half seasons before the team traded him to San Francisco in 2019. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 14
RB MIKE ANDERSON, 2000
The third of six different running backs to break 1,000 yards under Mike Shanahan, Anderson exploded in his rookie season. The sixth-rounder’s 1,487-yard, 15-touchdown season remains the most unexpected rookie-year breakout in Broncos history. But it only came because Olandis Gary and Terrell Davis struggled with injuries. That left Anderson as the best back standing.
Like Portis two years later, Anderson was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
During a dominant three-game late-season stretch, Anderson scored 8 touchdowns and ran for 577 yards on 96 carries — an average of 32.0 attempts per game.
The game has changed quite a bit since Anderson’s rookie season. That year, he had a Broncos-record four games with at least 30 rushing attempts. That’s exactly as many 30-carry games as Denver running backs have had in the last 10 years. And no Denver runner has even a single 30-carry game in the last four seasons. We might never see a season like Anderson’s again. Pro-Football-Reference AV: 14