The State of the Broncos’ Backfield

Disclaimer: Kevin actually had this finished before training camp began, so his analysis has nothing to do with the practice reports from Dove Valley or who had the most carries in the scrimmage today. 

As a kid of the 90’s and early 00’s I grew up wanting to be a running back.  These were the days of Terrell Davis, Ladainian Tomlinson , Marshall Faulk and many, many more stud running backs. Teams revolved around their running back. Broadcast commentators taught us the importance of developing a running game. We then witnessed the importance first hand when we watched Jerome Bettis bulldoze his way into the end zone. Or when we watched in awe as Barry Sanders juked his defenders out of their shoes.

Every year I bought the new Madden game I would start in the training camp mode. I would work until I could dominate all of the running back drills and then I would boot up a new Broncos season and work towards a 2,000 yard rushing season. That is how I knew football. (And that probably explains why I am so horrible at passing in Madden to this day.)

Sometime in the mid 2000’s football’s philosophy shifted. The passing game became the focal point while the running game slowly faded from importance. Eventually the idea of a star running back vanished. Or at least shifted into an unnecessary luxury. Teams were creating running back by committees. You have a big guy for the short situations and a fast guy for the more dynamic situations. For years the Broncos committed (perhaps even created) to this theory.

Things have certainly changed but I am a stubborn man and I still believe in the endangered species of the running back. As a Broncos fan I saw how Terrell Davis took the team over the top during the Super Bowl years. I saw Mike Shanahan infuriate fantasy football fans year after year by making the most obscure players into star running backs. I have witnessed the importance of this position first hand and I still believe it will make or break the 2014 Denver Broncos season.

As training camp for the Broncos starts it seems that the running back position is one of the biggest question marks for the team. Gone is Knowshon Moreno after a solid year of hardwork for the AFC champs. And here to stay are two unproven but highly drafted players and five undrafted college players. Among these seven young men the Broncos are hoping that somebody steps up and grabs the reins of the starting position. But who will that be?

Montee Ball-

Oh Montee it seems like forever ago that I pined for the Broncos to draft you. And after they did I proceeded to tell everyone about the soon to be rookie of the year season you were primed to have. Unfortunately a missed block assignment in a preseason game found you in the dog house. Then you proceeded to fumble twice in the first half of the season. But you eventually recovered and put up a much better second half. Which gives me reason to believe that this is your season to shine

As the season progressed, it was clear that Montee was much more comfortable in the NFL. He started showing patience and intelligence. Montee’s advantage is his vision and his brain. He is smart enough to slow the game down and make quick decisions. He understands what will be asked of him in the offense after a rocky rookie season. He knows he has to protect Manning and he has to make a big play every once in a while.

He is also another passing threat for Manning. The Broncos’ pass game opens up the field for anybody to make a play. Manning doesn’t care if you are a 12-year veteran or an unproven former basketball playing tight end, if you are open you are getting the ball. With some many weapons to cover, Montee should have plenty of opportunities to find open space in the passing game.

Montee should be the unquestioned starter going into the season. He can run, catch and has the ability to make the smart decisions. I am confident his blocking has improved and that his rookie jitters are gone. I see a big drop off in talent after Montee which could mean the Broncos might buck the NFL trend of a running back committee and hand the reigns to their potential new star running back.

Ronnie Hillman-

Oh Ronnie, I had high hopes after I begged the Broncos to draft you. And once you put on the blue and orange I made a wild prediction of you taking home the rookie of the year honor. Unfortunately numerous mistakes landed you in the dog house. And you have been unable to escape that prison.

Okay, I do notice one trend in Broncos running backs. That trend is that I have unrealistic expectations for them in their rookie year. So I’m a homer for my running backs. Sue me.

Anyway, before my man crush on Montee Ball, I had a moner (man boner? Is this a thing I just started? I think so!) on Ronnie Hillman out of THE San Diego State University. Mostly because of extremely strange reasons that I don’t need to cover here. But it is true I thought he was the next big Broncos star. He was fast (still is) and young (22 going into his third year!) and broke a bunch of Marshall Faulk’s college records at SDSU. I had reasons to be excited!

After a quiet rookie regular season Ronnie was forced to step up in the ill-fated playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. He only rushed for 83 yards that night but I was impressed. Here was a rookie who had little playing time in the regular season, thrust into a starting role in the playoffs on a cold night. At the time I believed that night to be the poetic beginning of his storied career.

Going into the next season, Hillman was the unquestioned starter despite the veteran presence of Moreno and the knocking on the door of Ball. He was receiving praise for his offseason work and he was poised to carry the Broncos. Unfortunately mistakes started piling up and the coaching staff panicked. Hillman fell out of favor and was never heard from again.

Okay that isn’t completely true. He is allegedly still on the team and has a good chance to be Ball’s backup. He still has his speed in his favor. Although I believe the Broncos still haven’t figured out how to use his speed to their advantage. He shouldn’t be a pounding running back that carries the team. They should create open space for him with screens and tosses and let him run!

And perhaps he was too young for the NFL to handle the pressure. Maybe this year will be his year to mature and step up. He has a lot of work to do to prove himself to the fans and coaches though. I wouldn’t count him out completely but I still have my doubts.

C.J. Anderson-

What do I love more than rooting for players that I predicted the Broncos would draft? Rooting for players that are undrafted! Ever since Rod Smith the Broncos fanbase prides themselves on their team giving unheralded players a shot. Every year an undrafted rookie gets a spot on the team. Last year C.J. Anderson was lucky enough to do that.

Anderson impressed in preseason and had many people wondering if he could one day be the Broncos starting running back. Unfortunately he was injured for majority of the season and never had an impact in his rookie season. Now that Moreno is gone and the Broncos failed to bring in any veteran competition, it seems like Anderson is a shoe in to earn a roster spot and could potentially have a big impact in his second year.

Anderson is shorter than Ball and Hillman but he is stronger. He breaks tackles and forces his way through the defense. He could bring some toughness to this offense on 3rd downs or in the end zone.

He is an easy guy to root for and I know many Broncos fans will be keeping an eye on him this season.

Kapri Bibbs-

CSU students and alums are very excited to see Kapri Bibbs play for a spot on the hometown Broncos team. They haven’t been this excited since Bradlee Van Pelt.

An undrafted free agent, Bibbs comes from CSU where he scored 31 touchdowns. He has very few miles as a starting running back and he is coming out of a relatively weak college football situation but fans are excited for his big play ability.

I am as excited for Bibbs as anyone. My only concern is that he is essentially Montee Ball 2.0

Both are essentially the same size. Both scored at least 30 touchdowns in a season in college. Both have been labeled as patient and intelligent playmakers.

Of course having smart and patient playmakers is a great thing. But since Montee is already filling that role it might not end well for Bibbs.

Then again Bibbs competed and earned his spot at CSU. Perhaps he has the determination and drive to take a roster spot. At the very least I expect a practice squad position for him.

Juwan Thompson-

I don’t know much about Juwan except that he came out of Duke which is where Manning’s former quarterback coach, coaches. He is built like Anderson but a bit taller. He has a decent shot of making the team since the Broncos have so little experience.

Also I know if he makes the team Jesse will make a Juwanna Mann joke. Sorry Jesse but I am going to make the first Juwanna Thompson joke. Ahem

So Juwanna make the team Thompson? Well you better work hard in training camp then!

Nailed it.

Brennan Clay-

Clay comes to us from Oklahoma. Any other year and he might have been the only undrafted running back the Broncos took a chance on. This year is pretty crowded.

Similar in size to Hillman, Clay comes with experience playing many different roles in college. If he makes the team look for him to do it with his special teams play.

Jerodis Williams-

Another undrafted guy except this will be his second season. He caught on with the Minnesota Vikings last season and is probably directly competing with Clay for that running back/special teams spot.

Roster Predictions-

Time for my attempt to predict the future. I foresee Ball taking the starting role and holding onto through the season. He is the only back  with enough confidence, experience and ability to step up for the Broncos. He will face lots of pressure to match the job that Moreno did last season.

After that I see Anderson taking over the second spot and coming in when we need some old school toughness. And then Hillman and Bibbs will be available as change of pace guys or injury emergencies. I kind of see them going back and forth at three and four until one of them has a breakout play or game.

As for the others I will take a shot in the dark. Clay makes the team for Special Teams. While Juwan makes the practice squad. And poor Jerodis is left out. Of course Jerodis could easily take one of those two spots instead if he is able to use his NFL “experience” in his favor.

Like I said, I take the running back position very seriously. I have my concerns about our group this year because Moreno was such a solid piece of our puzzle last season. He did more than run, he was apart of this difficult offense and he did his job with a toughness and determination that was fun to watch. One of these players is going to have to take a big step up in order to help the Broncos return to the promise land. The only question is, who’s it gonna be?

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