Nov 16, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) carries the ball during the first half against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Being a running back in a Peyton Manning offense is no easy task. From first round picks like Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Knowshon Moreno all the way down the line to guys like current Broncos starter and 2013 UDFA C.J. Anderson, it’s a complex program for any back to learn no matter what your draft status, and it includes required involvement in not just running the football but pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield.
It was easy for Broncos fans to forget a little bit about C.J. Anderson this offseason after they had seen the rise of Ronnie Hillman from the doghouse to the primary backup to 2013 second round pick Montee Ball, and even the emergence of 2014 UDFA Juwan Thompson. Anderson was almost a roster footnote, but he kept running hard, and despite being seemingly passed on the depth chart by all the aforementioned players, it’s Anderson who sits atop the Broncos’ depth chart in the middle of a really tight division race with a lot at stake against the Miami Dolphins in week 12.
Anderson’s emergence has been a bright spot for the Broncos after the injuries suffered by both Ball and Hillman, and especially in last week’s horrid loss to the Rams, Anderson was a shining star amidst a black, foggy night that was the Broncos’ overall performance.
With Hillman’s foot injury and Ball’s re-injured groin, the Broncos will rely heavily not only on Anderson against the Dolphins, but on fellow undrafted free agent backs Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs, giving the Broncos a trio of undrafted players at the running back spot going into what could be a playoff matchup against Miami and their stout front seven.
With Anderson racking up yards and catches these last two weeks, the Broncos are likely going to commit to running the football and establishing the ground game this week at home against the Dolphins, and he’ll have some help. The Broncos abandoned the running game far too early against the Rams and they know that. We could see an over-correction by John Fox and Adam Gase as they game plan this week for a pass rush starring Cameron Wake. Denver will need to neutralize that pass rush with a strong running game, and it will start with Anderson and rookie UDFA Juwan Thompson first and foremost.
Interestingly enough, the Broncos made a bold decision to hold five running backs on their roster a few weeks back when the Buffalo Bills were trying to steal Kapri Bibbs off the practice squad, and now Bibbs will likely get a chance to dress for his first regular season NFL game after scoring an NCAA-high 31 touchdowns last year at Colorado State.
Bibbs is a TD machine, and he led the Broncos in that category in the preseason. So far, he is the only back on the Broncos’ roster that hasn’t scored a touchdown this season. That may not change on Sunday afternoon, but he could get a shot.
With Anderson, Thompson, and Bibbs, the Broncos have very little actual NFL experience, and some really interesting young players who took very different paths to the NFL than a lot of college players who are starting or even playing in the NFL. Bibbs was a transfer to Colorado State who only played one year at college football’s highest level. Thompson was in a rotation at Duke that he could barely even be considered a starter. Anderson played in a rotation at California-Berkley where he split carries with Isi Sofele.
This is a fascinating situation, one that I don’t think any other NFL team can claim they have experienced. I don’t know how you would find it out for sure, but this could be the first time in NFL history that a team has trotted out only undrafted running backs on a gameday. The Broncos have been a model for UDFAs coming out in the last decade plus, and if they need a recruiting pitch, college players need look no further than this as evidence that the Broncos will give you a shot, and not only that, but you could be playing a key role in a game that has significant postseason implications.
Hopefully, Anderson, Thompson, and Bibbs are up to the challenge.