State Your Case: Karl Mecklenburg
The Swiss Army knife of defense
(Published November 2016)
Versatility was a plus for Karl Mecklenburg during his NFL career with the Denver Broncos.
But what worked for him as a player is now working against him as a Hall-of-Fame candidate. Mecklenburg is one of the most difficult players in NFL history to pigeon hole into a position.
Mecklenburg wasn’t allowed to line up on the weak side his entire career and come off the edge in the pass rush like Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor for 139 career sacks. He wasn’t allowed to line up on the strong side his entire career and engage tight ends and running backs in the passing game like Hall-of-Famer Ted Hendricks for 26 career interceptions.
And Mecklenburg wasn’t allowed to stand on the inside for 12 seasons and make tackle after tackle after tackle in the running game like Hall-of-Famer Mike Singletary.
Consistency in performance – and consistency at one position – puts players in the Hall of Fame.
Mecklenburg checks the box for consistency in performance but not consistency at a position. Because he didn’t have one position.
Mecklenburg was the defensive equivalent of a Swiss army knife. A multi-purpose defensive tool, he played anywhere and everywhere, from season to season, often from game to game.
“My position is strange because I played all seven front positions,” Mecklenburg said. “One of the challenges I face in having an opportunity of going to the Hall of Fame is that, statistically, people don’t know what to do with me.”
Mecklenburg played both left and right defensive end in his career, nose tackle, middle linebacker in a 4-3 and both right and left inside linebacker and right and left outside backer in a 3-4. That’s eight positions in a defensive front, and Mecklenburg started games at six of them.
There were games when Broncos defensive coordinator Joel Collier would line up Mecklenburg in four to five different positions, much like the Philadelphia Eagles used a young Reggie White.
“The only reason Joe moved me around was to force mismatches and mess up blocking assignments for the other team,” Mecklenburg said. “He was just trying to put me at the point of attack. It was a great opportunity for me, and I didn’t ever look at it as a negative.”
Mecklenburg was a 12th round draft pick by the Broncos out of Minnesota in 1983. He arrived in the NFL as a defensive end but spent most of his rookie season chasing kicks on special teams. He did contribute two sacks on defense, however. The Broncos moved him to inside linebacker in 1984, but he again spent most of his time covering kicks. He did start his first NFL game and showed a knack for rushing the passer with seven sacks.
Mecklenburg moved into the starting lineup at left inside linebacker in 1985, collecting a career-high 13 sacks and forcing five fumbles on the way to the first of his six Pro Bowls. He also started a game at left outside linebacker that season.
Mecklenburg made 127 tackles in 1986 to help the Broncos reach the first Super Bowl of the John Elway era. Then he intercepted a pair of New England passes in a 1987 game and finished that season with 97 tackles. He was the team’s defensive MVP as the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl.
His best season came in 1989 at right inside linebacker when he collected a career-best 143 tackles, 7-1/2 sacks and recovered a career-high four fumbles, returning one 43 yards for a touchdown against Phoenix in yet another Super Bowl season.
Mecklenburg moved to right outside linebacker in 1990 and made 116 tackles and collected his lone career safety. He also started at middle linebacker in his final season in 1994, stacking the final 83 tackles on his 1,144-tackle career.
Add it all up, and Mecklenburg started 55 games at left inside linebacker, 51 at right inside backer, 16 at right outside backer, 15 at middle linebacker, three at left defensive end and one at left outside linebacker.
The sacrifice of playing wherever the defense wanted him or needed him took a toll on his statistics. Mecklenburg was never asked to do one thing. He was asked by the Broncos to do everything. His 79 career sacks don’t wow anyone. Neither do his 16 career forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries nor three interceptions.
The stats may not be Hall-of-Fame-caliber, but the player certainly was. Mecklenburg was a key defensive component of a team that won 60 percent of its games, went to the playoffs seven times, won five AFC West titles and three AFC championships.
“Karl is absolutely worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Elway said. “His versatility was simply incredible and his intelligence is what made him such a great player. He was a very talented player physically, but his intelligence to play so many different positions at a high level and also being able to rush the passer the way he could made him so special. The combination of the positions he played… no one else did. His versatility was absolutely his biggest strength, and he was such a big part of getting us to those three Super Bowls.”
Mecklenburg is one of the 26 semifinalists for the Class of 2017. It’s time the voters look past the stats and study the impact of the player. His name belongs in the discussion for the Hall of Fame.