Grading The 2014 Broncos: Running Backs

In Part I of our series on grading the Broncos, we take a look at running backs. Our grades will be based on each player’s on-field performance and the relativity/value to their 2014 salary cap hit.

Welcome to Part I of our series “Grading the 2014 Denver Broncos”. Each player will be evaluated based on their on-field performances and their value relative to their 2014 cap hit.

The evaluations are based on what I see with my own two eyes. I understand that not everyone will see each grade my way but you follow us here at MHH for our opinion and analysis and throughout this series, we’re going to give it to you.

Today, we start with running backs – a position that was in flux for much of the 2014 regular season, mostly due to the injury bug. The player who ended up rising to the top was arguably the one least expected by most.

All salary cap numbers come via Spotrac.com.

C.J. Anderson

2014 cap hit: $499,166

Anderson originally went undrafted out of the University of California in 2013. The former Golden Bear was signed by the Broncos and invited to come compete in training camp. And compete he did.

Anderson quickly rose through the running back ranks and ultimately earned himself a spot on the final 53-man roster, despite being injured and unavailable for the first several weeks of the regular season.

Going into 2014, Anderson was competing with two guys who had been high draft selections by John Elway and the Broncos. Nevertheless, when the first depth chart was released for the regular season, Anderson was listed as No. 2.

From Week 1-through-Week 9, Anderson only received a combined 21 touches. Despite being No. 2 on the depth chart, when Montee Ball went down, the Broncos first turned to Ronnie Hillman to carry the load.

But as the bell-cow, it didn’t take long for Hillman’s slight frame to succumb to the pounding of NFL defenses. When he went down with a foot injury in Week 10 vs. the Oakland Raiders, it gave Anderson the opportunity to see significant touches.

Anderson finished the game with 163 total yards and a touchdown. From that point forward, he was the bell-cow behind Peyton Manning. Down the stretch, we finally got to see Anderson blossom into the fierce runner that he is.

His vision, powerful lower body and the ability to make the first guy(s) miss, made him a dangerous weapon in the Broncos offensive attack. Following the Broncos disappointing loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 11, the offense underwent a makeover, transforming to a run-first attack – with Anderson carrying the load.

From Week 10-through-Week 17, Anderson rushed for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 30 balls for 290 yards and 2 touchdowns. In just eight games, he was able to accumulate 1,057 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns.

Anderson joined Terrell Davis as the only Broncos running backs in franchise history to have multiple games of three rushing touchdowns in the same season. When you weigh that production relative to his salary cap hit, Anderson’s value to the team was tremendous in 2014.

His performance down the stretch even earned him a spot as a Pro Bowl alternate. Anderson ended up playing in the Pro Bowl, due to Le’Veon Bell backing out because of injury, making Anderson the first Broncos running back to make the Pro Bowl, since Willis McGahee was elected back in 2011.

Overall, Anderson cemented himself as the man in the backfield, moving forward. His fiery performance in the Broncos Divisional Round playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts was remarkable.

On a fourth down play that the Broncos needed to convert badly, he made multiple guys miss, after being met in the backfield on first contact, and fought for the first down, eventually crossing that illusory yellow line and kept the chains moving.

Grade: A+.

Ronnie Hillman

2014 cap hit: $807,708

The Broncos originally selected Hillman in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. And for the first two years of his career, many fans questioned what the team saw in him, as he struggled to produce on the grid-iron and was often in the doghouse off of it.

One of the reasons Hillman likely struggled early on in his career was that he was not only very young (youngest player in the NFL his rookie year), but he also needed time to develop an NFL body. Working with strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson, Hillman finally grew into shape in 2014.

As mentioned above, when the team’s original starter, Montee Ball, went down, the Broncos turned to Hillman as the featured back. And for the first time in his career as a Bronco, he produced. He answered the bell.

Hillman ended up starting four games for the Broncos. In Week 6, he notched his first career 100-yard rushing game and ended up notching one more in Week 8. He had three-straight games of 100 total yards from scrimmage.

But then the injury bug struck vs. the Raiders and it took Hillman a long time to recover. During his time as the starter, however, he showcased good receiving skills out of the backfield and for the first time, was able to utilize his speed in the open field to make big plays.

Hillman finished the season with 434 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, to go along with 21 receptions, for 139 yards and 1 touchdown. His performance, relative to his salary cap hit, was very good.

Grade: B+.

Montee Ball

2014 cap hit: $787,347

Ball entered the 2014 season with high expectations – not just for himself, but from the team and the fans. As the Broncos 2013 second round pick, Ball showed great promise down the stretch his rookie year, backing up Knowshon Moreno.

The Broncos were high enough on Ball to let Moreno walk in free agency and Ball rewarded their faith in him by working hard to earn the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. During the off-season, Ball added 12 pounds to his frame, in an effort to bulk up for the rigors of a 16-game season.

Unfortunately, the weight gain seemed to slow him down some and reduce his quickness on the field. He started the first three games of the season, before he tore his groin. In that time, he rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown, but only averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.

Ball tried to fight back from his groin injury, but was eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve, following the Broncos Week 11 loss to the Rams. It was a disappointing season for the second-year pro out of Wisconsin.

Moving forward, Ball still factors greatly into the Broncos plans at running back. Elway was very complimentary when the team drafted Ball in 2013, even comparing him to the great Terrell Davis. There’s no question he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed, but he’ll now have to contend with a Pro Bowler in Anderson.

All three of these running backs could see their production increase in new head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone running scheme. Vision, burst and the ability to make guys miss are the traits that set some of the great zone runners in the team’s past apart – players like Davis, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis. Hopefully a new system and new coaching can be the catalyst for Ball to take the next step in his career.

Grade: C-.

Juwan Thompson

2014 cap hit: $420,000

Thompson went undrafted out of Duke University in 2014. But his strong work ethic and powerful running style, ultimately earned him a spot on the team’s final 53-man roster. His preseason performance was very productive and replete with him trucking dudes.

Thompson started the season at No. 4 on the running back depth chart and probably would never have seen the field, had the team not been struck so hard by the injury bug. In a surprising turn, when Ball went down and the team turned to Hillman as the featured back, it was Thompson, not Anderson, who was used as the primary backup.

Thompson’s rookie campaign was productive from a reserve role. As a former David Cutcliffe disciple, he understood much of Peyton Manning’s system and proved to be better than expected in pass protection.

He often lined up at tailback, but at times, especially on the goal-line, he was the fullback, even scoring a couple of touchdowns from that spot. Thompson finished the year with 272 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging a healthy 5.0 yards per carry.

Thompson represents another great diamond in the rough, mined from the ubiquitous pool of undrafted players by John Elway. Like the three aforementioned players, Thompson has a great opportunity to shine in Kubiak’s zone scheme.

Because once Thompson makes his cut, he gets downhill in a hurry and punishes the opposition when trying to tackle him. He reminds me of Reuben Droughns in that regard.

Grade: B.

Jeremy Stewart

2014 cap hit: $201,176

Stewart went undrafted in 2012 out of Stanford, bouncing around the league, until the Broncos signed him to their practice squad on October 8th. Then, in late November, the team promoted him to the active roster and waived Kapri Bibbs, who never saw a snap in his short time on the active roster.

From Week 14-through-Week 17, Stewart saw a total of 11 offensive snaps, carrying the ball 6 times for 22 yards, including a goal-line tote, which he was unable to convert into a score. Overall, Stewart was a band-aid, who filled in when needed down the stretch.

He didn’t do anything special, except carry the ball once for a season-high 16 yards. He was average in the opportunities given him, which were admittedly small. Relative to his cap hit, I wasn’t impressed with Jeremy Stewart and doubt he’ll be around when the regular season starts next September.

Grade: D.

As an honorable mention, I’ll briefly talk about Kapri Bibbs, who I think has an excellent chance to impact the roster in Kubiak’s system. The Broncos carried him on the practice squad for most of the year, and signed him to the active roster, only when they thought they might lose him to another interested team.

Bibbs has excellent vision and could really excel in this new system. Look for him to be a 2015 darkhorse. One other note, all of the top-four contributors at running back are under contract for 2015.

Chad Jensen is the Publisher and Lead Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+.

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