By Joshua Bowers
One of the staples in the Mile High and in a Gary Kubiak offense has been being able to produce at the running back position. It seems that no matter who you plug in, you get the results. From Terrell Davis to Mike Anderson, no matter when they were drafted or if they were even drafted at all, the Broncos have been able to put up numbers. Some pundits say it is the system, but I think it’s just a tradition when Gary Kubiak and the Broncos link up. It was that way when he was the offensive coordinator and it will continue this year in his second year with the team.
The Broncos entered this past offseason with more questions than answers at the running back position. Both CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman were free agents and many weren’t sure if the Broncos would re-sign either of the running backs to be back in a Broncos uniform. CJ Anderson, a restricted free agent, received a 4 year, 18 million dollar offer sheet from the Miami Dolphins, who were in desperate need of a running back. Many thought that price was too steep for a player that has yet eclipsed the 1000 yard mark in any season so far in his career. Five days later the Broncos matched the offer sheet, keeping Anderson in the Mile High for the next four seasons. The Broncos also re-signed Ronnie Hillman, last year’s leading rusher, to a 1-year deal. Most see this as a prove yourself deal. One of the candidates that I am most excited about is the rookie, Devontae Booker, out of Utah. Some NFL experts had him listed as their second best running back in the draft, and somehow the Broncos were able to get him in the fourth round of the draft. Can you say steal?
It’s not often that you see an undrafted free agent rise to be the starting running back of an NFL franchise, but that is what CJ Anderson has accomplished with the Broncos. In 2014, mostly due to injuries, CJ was given the opportunity to be the starter and since then, he hasn’t looked back. On November 9, Anderson scored his first career touchdown, on a 51-yard screen pass from Peyton Manning in a 41–17 rout of the Oakland Raiders. Anderson had breakout games against the Dolphins and the Chiefs, running for over 150 yards each time, the first Denver Broncos running back to do so since 2004. Anderson was ultimately named to his first Pro Bowl at the end of the season in place of the injured Le’Veon Bell. In 2015, CJ Anderson showed up at training camp at what many of the coaches considered overweight and it took a while for him to gain traction in the run game. Some would blame it on his weight, but I personally think that it was the offense. With it being Kubiak’s first season and with having Manning at the helm, I believe that the Broncos were using a hybrid offense last year and not a true Kubiak system. The results were winning the Super Bowl, but Anderson only managed 720 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. Anderson is a big running back, weighing in at 224 last year. But at only 5’8 he is able to get his pad level very low to the ground and can be incredibly difficult to tackle. It seems that after week 8 of the season, a light comes on for Anderson. He gets stronger as the season goes on and can be the workhorse when needed come playoff time.
Another option is the running back out of San Deigo State who broke most of Marshall Faulk’s records in his two seasons there, Ronnie Hillman. Ronnie Hillman is the speed back and the biggest home run threat for the Broncos. He was the team’s leading rusher last year, accumulating 863 yards on the ground to go with 7 TDs. Ball security issues and injuries have plagued Hillman and many feel that at this point, he is playing for a spot on the roster.
One of the potential contributors that I’m excited about is Devontae Booker out of Utah. Booker has been compared to Arian Foster, a running back who flourished with Kubiak in Houston. He was graded out as the second best running back in this year’s draft by some NFL analysts and we were able to get him in the 4th round. He was coming off an ACL injury and that probably caused him to drop on some teams’ draft boards. Booker attended American River College from 2011 to 2013. In 2011 he had 793 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and in 2012 he had 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was originally expected to transfer to the University of Utah prior to the 2013 season but was unable due to academic reasons. He stayed at American River College and did not play football in 2013. Booker officially transferred to Utah in 2014. He entered the season splitting time with Bubba Poole, but eventually became the main running back. He finished the year with 1,512 yards on 292 carries and 10 touchdowns. As a senior, Booker played in the first ten games before a torn knee ended his season. He finished the year with 1,261 yards on 268 carries and 11 touchdowns. Booker is a smooth runner that runs with power and has some of the best vision that I’ve seen out of a running back in a while. He has shifty eyes, quickly spots the whole or seam, and bursts up the field with decisiveness. He sounds like the perfect back for the Kubiak system. One of his most underrated attributes is his catching ability out of the backfield. Go back and watch his Utah highlights and you’ll see more than a few bad throws that he catches with ease and turns into a TD or a big gain. So far in training camp, he has been able to showcase that same quality and has caught the eye of a few coaches. If he is able to produce like I think that he can, I think that he will move into the number two spot and can eventually be a three down back in the NFL.
I don’t know how things will shake out this year, but that is the beauty of a new season. I expect the Denver rushing attack to return to the years of old and I think that this unit will surprise some people next year. Whether it be Anderson, Booker, or Hillman, I think that they will be able to be a major part of our offense next year and might even bring back a little Mile High Magic!