Ranking the Top 10 Colorado-born football players in NFL history

Tailback Phillip Lindsay and offensive lineman Dalton Risner are central to the Panthers’ selection of Broncos and Christian McCaffrey recently signed the richest deal for a return in NFL history.

The professional rise of those three homegrown athletes begs the question: Who are the greatest NFL players to come from Colorado? Here’s a Top 10 ranking from The Denver Post. To be eligible for this list, a player must have been born in the state and also played high school football here (so Fairview High grad and potential Hall of Famer Tony Boselli is not listed).

(Birthplace, High School, College, Pro, career time span)

10. Gary Knafelc

TE | Pueblo | 1954-63

Knafelc, a two-time Super Bowl champion, is on Green Bay’s Hall of Fame. A tight ending, Pueblo Central High School and the CU product made several iconic catches in Packers’ history – including the winning touchdown reception in the first game at Lambeau Field – and were also known for blocking in additional stints with the Cardinals and 49ers.

9. Mark Mullaney

THE | Denver | 1975-86

Mullaney, a member of the CSU Hall of Fame, played defensively in Minnesota, where he was part of the ‘Purple People Eaters’ defense and played in Super Bowl XI. The NFL didn’t start bagging until 1982, so his career stats remain a mystery. However, in his last five seasons, the George Washington High graduate collected 13 1/2 bags.

8. Byron White

TB / HB | Fort Collins | 1938-41

An all-American halfback at CU, “Whizzer” had a short but distinguished career in the NFL. The future Supreme Court judge led the league in 1938 and 1940 to earn two All-Pro kinks and ended his career with 1,622 yards in total and 12 touchdowns.

Luther Elliss

DT / DE | Mancos | 1995-2004

The Macos High and Utah grad hit 331 tackles and 29 sacks in his career, earning consecutive Pro Bowl kinks in Detroit in 1999 and 2000 as a defensive lineman. He ended his career with one season in Denver.

6. Nate Solder

OL | Denver | 2011-present

Born in Denver, the future CU Buffs star first made his name as a tight ending for Buena Vista High. Pivotal to Tom Brady’s offensive line during two Super Bowl title runs in New England, the reliable, tough and stubborn left tackle has started all 16 games in a season five times in his career, including the last three seasons.

Aaron Smith

THE | Colorado Springs | 1999-2011

Smith, a Northern Colorado and Sierra High grad, won a few Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was on the defensive line, stacking 481 tackles and 44 sacks over a long career where he made double-digit starts from 2000-08 for nine consecutive seasons.

Christian McCaffrey

RB | Castle Rock | 2017-present

The Valor Christian product is arguably the most electric high school player the state has ever seen. After nearly winning the Heisman trophy at Stanford, McCaffrey was chosen eighth overall in the 2017 draft by the Carolina Panthers and has collected 5,443 yards from scrimmage and 39 touchdowns in three seasons. In 2019, he became the third player in NFL history to rush 1,000 yards in the same year and receive 1,000 yards. If McCaffrey remains healthy, Canton is not out of the question.

3. Vincent Jackson

WR | Colorado Springs | 2005-16

An overlooked recruit from Widefield High, Jackson turned down an opportunity to attend the Columbia University of the Ivy League so that he could play football and basketball for Northern Colorado. After setting UNC records in receptions, receiving yards, kick return yards, punt return yards, and receiving touchdowns, the San Diego Chargers selected him with the 61st overall pick in the 2005 draft. The wideout collected 540 receptions for 9,080 yards and 57 touchdowns over a 12-year career split between the Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He led the NFL with an average of 19.2 yards per catch in 2012 – one of three seasons that ended with a Pro Bowl roster.

2. Calais Campbell

THE | Denver | 2008-present

One of the best in Denver South, Campbell was recruited by high school Miami Hurricanes, hitting 39 tackles for a loss over three seasons before being selected 50th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. A five-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro squad in 2017 registered the 33-year-old 696 tackles and 88 sacks in a career now approaching his 13th season. He reached the Super Bowl in his freshman year with Arizona and has played in three conference championships – most recently in 2017 with Jacksonville. With Campbell moving to Baltimore this season, there may be more success in the postseason.

1. Dutch Clark

RB | Fowler | 1931-38

The “Flying Dutchman,” the only native Coloradan in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a part of Canton’s inaugural class in 1963. Clark played at Pueblo Central and Colorado College before joining Portsmouth Spartans in 1931. Three years later, he started a five-year run with the Detroit Lions, which earned him four of his six All-Pro kinks and won an NFL championship in 1935.

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