In the first round of the 1982 NFL draft (21st overall), the Denver Broncos and then head coach Dan Reeves selected running back Gerald Willhite out of San Jose St. University. Willhite had a productive career for the Broncos, but was perhaps more known for his identifiable touchdown celebration of a standing back-flip in the end zone.
<Insert really cheesy segway here>
Heading into the 2013 season, it would appear that Denver will be flipping their stable of running backs (I know, it’s kind if a reach). Heading into the 2013 off season, the Broncos stable of RBs included Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Ronnie Hillman, Jacob Hester, and Chris Gronkowski. The only member of this group that is guaranteed to be back is Hillman, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft out of San Diego St. University. It’s not as if a 3rd round pick is that untouchable. Rather John Elway and John Fox are really high on Hillman and both expressed as much at the NFL combine last weekend in Indianapolis.
Hillman has very good speed, catches passes out of the backfield, and can be explosive. The question marks are his durability to run between the tackles and blocking. The latter was exposed in the divisional playoff game on January 12th. The good news is that he is only 21, will fill out more, and will get stronger and more experienced to handle those duties.
Of the other aforementioned backs, it’s likely that McGahee, Gronkowski, and Hester will be waived. Lance Ball is an unrestricted free agent and if the Broncos don’t offer him a deal before March 12th, he could sign elsewhere.
The biggest unknown is Moreno. The oft-injured former All-American from Georgia had a bit of a break-out year once McGahee went down in week 11. It appeared that the New Jersey native was finally reaching his potential. Oh, did I say that he was oft-injured? The future deciding factors of ability to play vs inability to stay healthy collided on January 12th against the Baltimore Ravens. He was having a good game. He caught a beautiful go-ahead TD pass in the 2nd quarter on a throw that only Peyton Manning and maybe two or three other QBs in the NFL can make. He was also blocking well, which along with being able to run between the tackles were noticeable voids in the Broncos offense from the time of his third quarter exit from a knee injury. And therein lies the conundrum. Keep him and his upside at the risk of being injury prone or cut him loose. The other option is to see if Moreno will restructure his deal so an injury or a buy-out will not hamstring the Denver in relation to the salary cap (pun intended).
All of this leads me to the crux of this article: the college options at the running back position. Here are a few guys that are either high on a lot of boards or have caught my eye:
Eddie Lacy (5-11, 231 pounds, Alabama): Lacy is without question the highest profiled back in the draft (Ranked #1). He had a great game against Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship and proved that he can run it within the hashes and steamroll defenders. He also has good football speed to go along with that power. I really don’t expect him to be on the board when the Broncos pick at No. 28. However if he is, it would be really difficult for Elway not to pull the trigger on that pick.
Jonathan Franklin (5-10, 205 pounds, UCLA): Franklin has impressive foot quickness. He has good vision and is a one-cut type of back. Once he makes that cut, he explodes through the hole and has pretty good speed. Some experts question his speed in the open field. However, if you look at Franklin, he kind of reminds me of a certain 6th round draft choice of our Broncos in 1995.
Mike James (5-10, 223 pounds, Miami): James is the guy I am following. I saw him in the Senior Bowl and was impressed. He doesn’t seem to do anything great, but does many things very well. He shows versatility as a runner, receiver out of the backfield, and pass blocks very well. I think there is a good chance that James will be there for the Broncos in the third round and maybe even the fourth round. Since there are a few areas of need, I think they can go get that defensive tackle or inside linebacker in the first round and still get very good value at RB in the 3rd with James.
Other backs that might be a good fit and value for the Broncos which they can get in either rounds two or three are: Stepfan Taylor (5-9, 214 pounds, Stanford), Le’Veon Bell (6-1, 230 pounds, Michigan State), Jawan Jamison (5-7, 203 pounds, Rutgers), and Andre Ellington (5-9, 199 pounds, Clemson).
As stated, the Broncos do need to fortify the RB position not only for 2013, but for the next five or six years. This is a very deep draft in a few particular areas of need for Denver (DT, DB, and RB). As such, I don’t believe they need to overreach for a back in the first round. They should take the best player on the board in one of those positions and then let the players of value fall to them in subsequent rounds. Any way you size it up, if the Broncos’ Brass do its due diligence in selecting a running back, fans will be doing back-flips for years to come. Yeah, I know…cheesy!