Woody Paige: 2017 draft class will fare better than those in the past

Posted at 5:20 PM, May 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-15 19:20:28-04

DENVER — I’ve seen a lot of Broncos’ rookie indoctrinations, and this certainly is one.

As a certified member of the Denver media, I’ve been around these things since 1974 – which isn’t much of a life achievement.

But I can report that this assemblage of eight draft players and 17 undrafted free agents looked better on the practice grass in jerseys, shorts and cleats (and many in backward baseball caps) than all but a half dozen of the previous bunches.

How will they play?

I don’t know any more than anyone else.

I do know more of them will stick around longer than the crowd in my first season.

In the 17 rounds of the ’74 draft the Broncos, headed by coach-general manager John Ralston, drafted 13 players. And 13 more rookies who had gone undrafted were added for camp.

It was a scruffy group, with only a few exceptions.

Most prominent was No. 1 pick (14th overall) Randy Gradishar, an Ohio State linebacker (and sixth in the Heisman balloting) who Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes proclaimed his best defensive player ever.

Just as Gradishar and the others were looking forward to their first season in the NFL, something strange happened on the way to camp. On July 1 the veterans went on strike and claimed they would not show up. Their main contention was that players who completed their contracts should be able to sign with other teams.

The NFL players felt they had the right to become "free agents."

Ralston had set up his camp at the campus of Cal Poly Pomona (Calif.).

The owners wouldn’t buckle, and, after 42 days, the players surrendered, and reported on August 10.

But most of those Broncos’ first-year players would start or play in the first exhibition.

And for most of them, it was their bright, shining moment in the NFL.

You may not believe this, but only Gradishar and two others survived to make the regular-season roster.  The Broncos’ second-round pick, Carl Wafer, was cut just before the season – and ended up playing one year with a couple of other teams. Nine weren’t so fortunate. Linebacker Larry Cameron went off to the Canadian Football League the next season, then became a professional wrestler.

Third-round pick Claudie Minor, a tackle from San Diego State, would start 14 games (most by a rookie), and had a distinguished nine-season career with the Broncos.

Gradishar lasted one more, and became the heart of what I would name in 1976 the "Orange Crush" defense. But he began ’74 as a backup and started only four games.

The only other pick to make it was from the 17th round.  Boyd Brown, a tight end from Alcorn State and almost an after-thought in the draft, would the Broncos’ kickoff returner and a reserve for three seasons.

Offensive lineman LeFrancis Arnold, who hadn’t been drafted, stuck, but played in only two games.

And the Broncos made a deal with Washington for one of its selections – Jon Keyworth. The former Colorado Buffaloes running back spent seven seasons with the Broncos and played with Gradishar and Minor in the franchise’s first Super Bowl in ’77.

What will become of the Class of ’17?

If last year is a basis of comparison, all eight drafted players who were on the field and in the rookies’ photo Saturday will join the Broncos’ active roster or practice squad. And a few of the undrafted free agents also will make the practice squad, and probably one, based on the Broncos’ previous successes with undrafted field agents, will be included on the 53-man roster.

Three to five drafted players could be starters or impact rotational players this season.

Garett Bolles, the Broncos’ first-round pick, is the starting left tackle. Will he be Ryan Clady (No. 1 pick of 2008) or Ryan Harris (third-round pick in 2007) or Orlando Franklin (the second-round choice in 2011 who was released today by the Los Angeles Chargers)? The Broncos believe.

Defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker will start or play half the time. Carlos Henderson should be the Broncos’ next slot receiver, and Jake Butt, recovering from a torn ACL, is the tight end of now or the future. Cornerback Brendan Langley, running back De’Angelo Henderson and wide receiver Isiah McKenzie will compete to be the main man on returns and get some time on the field.

Quarterback Chad Kelly is the literal and figurative wildcard.

The Broncos are hopeful that one free agent someday will be a star. Think of Chris Harris Jr.

And 43 years after my first view of Broncos rookies, I’m just thrilled to be at minicamp – or anywhere.