For the third consecutive year, the Denver Broncos will have a new opening weekend starting running back. Denver has gone from Willis McGahee to Knowshon Moreno, and now to Montee Ball as the featured backs in their star-studded offense.
In 2011, Willis McGahee was a Pro Bowl player in that crazy Tim Tebow season that no one will ever forget. You could easily make the argument that Knowshon Moreno deserved Pro Bowl honors for his efforts in 2013 as well for the Broncos, notching his first 1,000 yard season and also showing impressive third down abilities, both as a pass protector and receiver.
Now, the reins are being handed to 2013 second round pick Montee Ball, who played pretty well overall as a rookie and despite being less involved as some might have anticipated given his draft position, Ball made some significant contributions and strides as the year went along.
As is the case with Ball as an individual player, the Broncos’ running back stable is largely unproven. Former third round pick Ronnie Hillman, who came in the same year as Peyton Manning, is running on very thin ice. C.J. Anderson showed some flashes as an undrafted rookie out of Cal, so having a year in the system should really help him out as well.
Aside from those three, the Broncos brought in three undrafted free agent running backs, including Colorado State standout Kapri Bibbs, Duke’s Juwan Thompson, and Oklahoma’s Brennan Clay.
The Broncos also have Jerodis Williams, a second year back out of Furman who went to camp with the Minnesota Vikings last year.
Montee Ball (2nd season — Age 23)
Ball is going to be the Broncos’ starting tailback in 2014, and has even higher expectations in his second season than he did as a rookie, when many felt like he could be the next great Denver running back in the best offense ever.
The adjustment to the speed of the NFL was real for Ball, who went from fumbling zero times at Wisconsin — that’s ZERO — to losing three fumbles in his rookie season with Denver.
As Ball adjusts to the level of these players at the NFL level, his fumbling woes should eventually go away, and he’s been focused this offseason on making improvements and being the featured back for the next greatest NFL offense ever.
Having had a year to learn on the go, Ball showed great strides at the end of his rookie season, rushing for 117 yards against Kansas City in early December, as well as averaging over 7 yards per carry in three of the Broncos’ final five games, and over five yards per carry in four of the final five games.
Ball was a great receiver at Wisconsin out of the backfield, and that ability was evident for Denver as he was able to catch 20 passes in his rookie year.
The excitement and anticipation for Ball is mounting. He doesn’t have Adrian Peterson type physical skills but he is a very talented running back who can do a little bit of everything, and he’s a lot more explosive than he’s given credit for. He’s certainly no Chris Johnson, but Ball knows how to move the chains and get the ball in the end zone. I think he’s going to be a special player for Denver in 2014.
Ronnie Hillman (3rd season — Age 22)
When Ronnie Hillman was drafted by the Broncos in 2012, he was the youngest player in the league. To say he was raw would be an understatement, but it’s been a really slow transition to the NFL for the former San Diego State superstar.
Hillman has only lost two fumbles in regular season play as a member of the Broncos, but he has a bad reputation for not being able to hold on to the ball, or the Broncos’ starting running back position.
Lacking the size to be a pounding back, Hillman is definitely going to have to make his mark as a change of pace for the Broncos, and they need him to show up this year in his third NFL season.
Hillman was placed firmly in the doghouse last year after blowing a touchdown drive against the Colts that could have helped the Broncos come back in one of their three regular season losses a year ago, and we didn’t see much of him after that.
The Broncos were fed up, and so were the fans.
Hillman knows that this offseason is going to be huge for his NFL future. He has a golden opportunity as the Broncos didn’t bring in any backs this offseason other than undrafted players. He has to take hold of his opportunity and win the #2 running back spot.
C.J. Anderson (2nd season — Age 23)
Anderson became the 10th consecutive undrafted free agent to make the Broncos’ opening day 53-man roster last year out of Cal, and pretty much came out of nowhere.
Built like a bowling ball, Anderson showed excellent quickness, burst, agility, tackle breaking ability, and just a rugged style of running last pre-season that prompted the Broncos to not only keep him on the 53-man roster, but to keep him on board despite an injury that kept him out weeks into the regular season.
Anderson has the skills to be a great reserve back in the NFL, and could even take a pounding as a featured back for some games if injuries should arise. We have a very limited knowledge of what Anderson can do in a featured role, as his opportunities were very limited last regular season, but he’s someone that has generated a decent amount of hype and we’ll look forward to seeing what he can do.
Jerodis Williams (2nd season — Age 23)
Williams entered training camp with the Minnesota Vikings last year as an undrafted free agent out of Furman, and the Broncos signed him to a futures contract at the end of last season.
The information on Williams is very little at this point. He will have to prove he is worthy in training camp.
Kapri Bibbs (Rookie — Age 21)
Bibbs is one of the youngest players on the Broncos’ roster, and is a favorite of local Denver fans as he led the nation in rushing touchdowns with 31 this past season at Colorado State, and was sixth in the nation in rushing yardage.
Bibbs felt like he would have been a first round pick had he played in the SEC, but he also might have had better training had he been in the SEC and would’ve been more athletically ready coming out of a big time SEC power program.
The good news is, Bibbs was wildly productive in a pro-style offense under CSU coach Jim McElwain, but the bad news is he didn’t show great athleticism and only had eight receptions all year.
He played one year at CSU and has some intriguing skills, so he’ll be a big name to watch for as the offseason progresses.
Brennan Clay (Rookie — Age 22)
In watching Clay at Oklahoma, you can see this is a versatile back who has the ability to win the Broncos’ third or fourth RB spot, but there will be hurdles.
He looks like a zone runner who is quick to the hole with good athletic ability, pass pro ability, and pass catching ability. He’s also had experience returning kicks at Oklahoma.
Coaches raved about his work ethic, and it’ll be exciting to see if he takes advantage of his opportunity in Denver.
Juwan Thompson (Rookie — Age 22)
Thompson may have been the favorite back of mine that I scouted after the draft. He didn’t have top level production at Duke, where he split carries with six backs, but he showed the ability to do it all, and he kind of reminds me a bit of C.J. Anderson in the way he runs.
He’s got good burst, quickness, and instincts as a runner. He’s good in pass protection, as a receiver, and he was a special teams captain at Duke in addition to their emergency middle linebacker.
He can do it all. I really like this young player.