Montee Ball could be out as long as 6 weeks. It'll probably be closer to 4, however. In the meantime, Broncos Country, and fantasy owners, will get a long look at the Denver Broncos stable of young running backs.
The Broncos already announced that 3rd year back, Ronnie Hillman, will get the start this Sunday vs the New York Jets; the first of his career. But true Bronco-holics, who follow the team closely, know that Hillman is the antithesis of dependability.
In 2013, he began the preseason at the top of the depth chart, ahead of Knowshon Moreno and Ball. But fumbling issues cost him the job and only a few weeks later, he took up residence in the Broncos doghouse for fumbling away a 4th quarter comeback effort at Lucas Oil Stadium. On the goal line, no less. Maturity issues led to him being a non-factor throughout the rest of the season.
My official position is that I'm confident that Hillman will get every opportunity to succeed as the Broncos bell-cow, sans Ball. But we must recognize his shortcomings and disappointing history with the team. Fantasy owners need to know more about the two undrafted youngsters behind Hillman. Namely, C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson.
Before I touch on Anderson, I'm going to first focus on Thompson, even though technically, Anderson is higher up the depth chart. Thompson played college ball at Duke, under David Cutcliffe, the brainchild who coached Petyon Manning at the University of Tennessee.
Many of the tenants that Manning learned and developed under Cutcliffe, have stuck with him throughout his pro career, including in Denver. This benefits Thompson. At a basic level, Thompson is ahead of the traditional rookie learning curve in this area. He has more knowledge and insight into pass protection and offensive schemes, than a typical rookie would.
Translation: he's going to see the field. Last week vs the Arizona Cardinals, Thompson carried the ball 3 times in the 2nd half, racking up 15 yards and a touchdown. He runs with power and authority and is not afraid to be the aggressor. Rather than absorbing the hit from a defender, Thompson looks to lay it on them.
This was very apparent in the preseason. As a "power back", he is proficient at keeping his legs churning once he's been contacted by the defense. This results in extra yards and broken tackles. See his touchdown last week for a perfect example of this.
He also happens to have all of the sizzle with the fans. Since his series of impressive performances in the preseason, Broncos Country have been pining to see him with the starters and they finally got their wish last week.
It's no secret that the Broncos running game has struggled through their first 4 games. Much of that blame lies with the offensive line and Adam Gase, the offensive coordinator. Montee Ball's injury last Sunday provided the team the opportunity to see if a different player in the backfield could improve their running game prospects.
And that's exactly what happened. In the 2nd half, Hillman and Thompson combined for 80 yards rushing and a touchdown. It was only the 2nd rushing touchdown of the season for the Broncos, I might add. This duo provided an effective "thunder and lightning" approach to that facet of the offense.
Thompson "tweaked" his knee vs the Cardinals. However, it was a minor injury and he later returned to the game to score his touchdown. He has since practiced in full throughout the week and is officially probable for this Sunday.
With how much the Broncos running game has struggled to start this season, I feel that the team is hoping that "thunder and lighting" can be an answer moving forward. I expect both Hillman and Thompson to get a large share of the carries this Sunday. Expect 60/30 ratio in favor of Hillman.
That still leaves 10%. Anderson will take the last fraction. Anderson and Thompson are actually similar runners. Both have powerful lower bodies and hit the hole with burst, looking to lay the wood. Anderson will factor into this running game, but I feel it'll be in more of a supporting role, unless Hillman and/or Thompson are unable to get it done. Again, the Broncos are simply looking for results.
For now, fantasy owners should certainly roster Juwan Thompson, knowing that he'll backup Hillman. If your team is knee deep in the bye week gauntlet, he might be worth a "what the heck" flex, only because I expect him to vulture any goal line opportunities from Hillman.
As for Hillman, I consider him a mid-tier RB2 in most fantasy leagues, with great upside. He looked really good last week, but it should also be remembered that his production came after the Cardinals lost their most dominant run defender, Calais Campbell. And running the ball against the Jets isn't exactly a walk in the park.