Broncos Have Envious Running Back Situation

The Denver Broncos will start the 2015 season with a much different perspective on their running back group than a year prior.

Heading into the 2014 season, second year man Montee Ball was looking to take the reigns from the newly departed Knowshon Moreno, who signed with the Miami Dolphins that offseason. Really the only question was who would be his backup.

Ronnie Hillman, who had been in then-Head Coach John Fox’s doghouse time and time again showed his worth in preseason but then fell ill, or… fell back into the doghouse.

Then the running back carousel began. C.J. Anderson, UDFA from the 2013 draft, had his shot at the beginning of the season with Hillman inactive. Then Ball got hurt, Hillman got his chance, Hillman got hurt, Ball came back, Ball got hurt and was out for the rest of the year, Anderson got another shot and didn’t look back. Oh, and John Fox was fired which led to the Broncos letting Adam Gase go to Chicago (with Fox) and hiring Gary Kubiak, thus changing the offense.

And here we are.

As it looks right now, C.J. Anderson is certainly projected to be the starting running back for the Broncos come early September. I’d be shocked if the leading back is someone other than the former Cal RB, barring injury or the Colts offering Andrew Luck for Anderson. You never know.

Depending on if/when Manning comes back/stays/decides to run Kubiak’s offense, The new offense will be coming either this year or next. The zone blocking scheme that will be integrated back into Denver fits Anderson extremely well. It’s also something the Broncos offensive line did a little bit of last year. So depending on who comes back up front, the Broncos shouldn’t miss much of a beat running the ZBS.

Even before last season I think the majority of Broncos fans thought the Broncos running backs had good depth. Big things were expected of Ball after a decent season in his rookie year, sans the four fumbles. Hillman was a sight for sore eyes in preseason after there was chatter his Broncos career was hanging in the balance. Even Anderson showed some signs of life on his seven carries his rookie year.

This year, there’s a feeling of depth, but it’s more real than just projecting. C.J. Anderson was able to rush for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns in just seven starts. In the last six games of the season, no one rushed for more yards than Anderson, who tallied 648. Anderson also rushed for all of his eight touchdowns during this stretch, which topped all other running backs.

The Broncos will also be returning Ronnie Hillman, who gained the necessary weight in effort to become more durable. In a cruel twist of fate, he ended up missing the same amount of games in 2014 as he did in his first two years combined (8).

Even still, Hillman showed great improvement and proved to be an asset on this team. He can play on any down (though probably not every down), averaging a career high 4.1 yards per carry. Most of his 434 yards on the season came at a point where the Broncos offensive line could not run block worth a lick. Hillman was the perfect back at the time with his ability to bounce runs outside if and when it got messy between the tackles.

He was also able to earn the coaches’ trust on 3rd downs and passing situations. According to Pro Football Reference, Hillman improved on his pass block efficiency (which calculates how efficient a RB is when it comes to limiting sacks, hits, and hurries) from 88.5% in 2013 to 93.8% in 2014. Moreover, Hillman was targeted more in 2014 (34) than in his first two years combined (12, 14).

With Hillman’s quicks, he should be a tremendous option as a change of pace back to spell Anderson, provided the latter stays healthy.

After Hillman, the running back picture gets a little murky, but not necessarily because of a lack of talent.

For me, the next talented back on the roster is Juwan Thompson, the other UDFA back on the roster, who will be going into his second year. I think Thompson has enough skill to be a great backup option in this league and could do so with Anderson should Ronnie Hillman get hurt. Last year the rookie Thompson got 54 carries for 272 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, he proved to be a good pass blocker, a welcomed trait as a year removed from college.

Speaking of blocking, there’s talk that Thompson could make the move to fullback in Gary Kubiak’s offense. While I would be reluctant at first to do this, Thompson, who I’ve dubbed “The Anvil,” projects well here because he moves so well for his size, has good vision, and can knock anybody on defense on their butt.

The last back on the active roster is Montee Ball. Of the four backs, I think he’s the least appealing, a thought that shocks me going back to last year. I thought he had the burst and the vision to be a good running back. But as the season went on, I started blaming the offensive line less (even though they were pretty bad) and started seeing more faults with Ball. He’s just not an elusive runner with the kind of pop you like to see out of the backfield.

I wouldn’t mind bringing Ball back as a third running back, because two years may be too early to right off a second round running back. Ball has two years left on his rookie deal, meaning he’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2017. According to Over The Cap, if the Broncos cut Ball before June 1, he would cost $449,756 in dead money and $495,060 in cap savings. Should he be released after June 1, his dead money would shrink to $224,878 and his cap savings would rise to $719,938.

If the Broncos decide to go that route, I do think there are replacements available on the cheap.

First is through free agency. There are at least a couple of guys that I’ve seen that I think could be interesting choices. Keep in mind, these guys are only options if Thompson is moved to fullback and Ball is cut.

The first is Antone Smith. He’s spent each of his five years in Atlanta, getting one carry his rookie year and not getting his next one until three years later. His career arch has been unique to say the least.

Smith has an insane 9.9 yards per carry for his career, even though he’s only ran the ball 29 times. Last year, underutilized by the Falcons, he only got 36 total touches. With that, he was able to generate 366 yards from scrimmage and five total touchdowns. All of his seven career touchdowns have come from 38 yards out or further. He’s been a big play guy with albeit a small sample size.

The only problem is he might end up in a situation like he did last year where he had trouble getting playing time. He’s also coming off a broken leg that he suffered in week 11. That said, I’d still be interested in him given the right price.

Another guy who would be a great addition as the Broncos’ third back is Matt Asiata. He’s been given grief for overachieving, which is kinda weird. He was forced into the starting role in Minnesota last year after the Adrian Peterson scandal and wasn’t quite a fit. He then split carries with rookie Jerick McKinnon, a role that suits him much better. He ended up with 570 yards and nine touchdowns on 164 carries. He also caught 44 passes for 312 yards and a score.

Asiata is a no BS power runner with great pass blocking ability. He’d be a great choice for the Broncos on third downs and in the red zone when Anderson needs a breather.

As far as the draft concerns, I’d only see the Broncos taking a running back on day three. The position is extremely deep this year, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some guys that I think are late second or third rounders slip to the fourth or fifth round.

One guy that I think is worthy of a day two pick that people aren’t high on and could fall to the fourth round is Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne (CAP).

CAP is a guy that has good size at 5’10, 212 pounds but plays more like a small back. He doesn’t have a ton of power, but he’s a guy that I think will last a long time in this league and be productive on any team. His best trait is his vision, the most important ability for a running back. He rarely loses yards and only fumbled three times at Auburn. He’s also willing as a pass blocker, though he could get better in this area. In short, he’s a safe reliable back that would be perfect as a utility knife in that third back position.

The Broncos are in a good position with the running backs they have. Should they choose to, they could shuffle up their backfield a little bit while still having the flexibility to add good depth. With Kubiak’s running scheme, this RB group should be one of the stronger positions on the whole Broncos team.