SAN DIEGO — To call Karl Mecklenburg the most versatile player in the National Football League is to give him only a portion of the recognition he deserves.
Much has been said and written about the fact that Mecklenburg has played seven positions for the Denver Broncos--everywhere in the defensive line plus all four linebacking spots. He even has been known to spread himself this thin in a given game.
Since joining the Broncos out of the University of Minnesota in 1983, Mecklenburg has lifted the idea of versatility to new heights. He is an all-pro inside linebacker and a virtuoso wherever else he plays.
When Coach Dan Reeves shifts Mecklenburg from one position to another, he does so to put his best defensive player where help is needed most. He considers Mecklenburg as vital to the Bronco defense as quarterback John Elway is to the offense.
The Chargers will have to contend with Mecklenburg Sunday in the regular season finale at Denver, and his presence won't be conducive to ending a five-game losing streak that has all but eliminated them from the playoffs. He poses extra problems for a Charger offense that has been unable to solve a defense for weeks.
Last season, Mecklenburg made just about everybody's all-pro team, and Football News named him the AFC's player of the year. He is a good bet to repeat, and this week, he was elected by players and coaches to the AFC Pro Bowl team for the third time in five seasons.
"That's the honor that means the most to me," Mecklenburg said. "It comes from our peers and coaches, and they have the best understanding of who the best players are."
Basically, Mecklenburg is the Broncos' strong-side inside linebacker, meaning that he lines up on the same side as the opposing tight end. He also plays a lot at right defensive end and weak-side outside linebacker. And, depending on what the situation dictates, he may play any other line or linebacking position.
Reeves summed up Mecklenburg's value when he said, "We use him in a lot of different places because he's so important to us. He plays the run as well as anyone, and he's a big part of our pass rush. He hasn't had a bad football game this year."
Mecklenburg said the changing positions idea came from Joe Collier, the Broncos' assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
"It works well for me because of the matchups it gives me," Mecklenburg said. "In the defensive front, you're blocked by offensive linemen. Linebackers get to work on tight ends or running backs, and that's a lot less weight to handle.
"If I find myself in a mismatch with a tight end or running back as far as speed is concerned, they hide me in various other schemes.
"Actually, I don't change positions as much as I used to, because we have so many young players on defense this year. When I move around, everybody else has to move around, too. That's a lot for inexperienced players to absorb. Still, I may play a down now and then as a down lineman if Joe sees something special on the other side of the ball.
"Normally, I'm the strong-side inside linebacker on the first two downs and the right defensive end on third down or in other obvious passing situations. It's great for me. It's like I'm two people. And on third down, I get to tee off in the pass rush."
Mecklenburg leads the Broncos with six sacks--he had 13 in 1985--and his propensity for getting to the passer led to his founding a charity called "For Mercy's Sake, Sack 'Em".
Organized along the same lines as former Charger Rolf Benirschke's "Kicks for Critters" in San Diego, Mecklenburg's project has raised about $500,000 for Mercy Hospital in Denver in three seasons. Business firms and individuals pledge money for each sack by a Bronco.
Besides his six sacks, Mecklenburg has 73 solo tackles, 14 assists and a career-high 3 interceptions.
"He's tenacious, like all great defensive players," Reeves said. "He never stops. Billy Ray Smith of San Diego is a lot like that. Karl has a great surge to the football, and once he sees it, he gets in on an awful lot of tackles.
"Also, he's the leader of our defense. He's not a vocal guy, but his actions impress the people around him. They are very infectious. The other players look at him, and everybody gets fired up to play his type of football."
The Broncos' media guide lists Mecklenburg at 6-feet 3-inches and 230 pounds. He says he is 6-4 and weighs 245. In any case, he is tremendously strong.
"His strength amazes me," Reeves said. "He sheds blockers very, very well."
Equally amazing, considering all he has accomplished, is that Mecklenburg wasn't drafted by the Broncos until the 12th and last round. He was the 310th of 336 players taken in 1983.
But unlike so many players who are either drafted late or not at all, Mecklenburg has a good idea why he had to wait so long.
"I tore a ligament in my knee in spring practice in my junior year," he said. "I played that fall, but pro scouts make a big thing of college injuries, and I was playing with a brace on my knee.