As the Denver Broncos prepare to reconvene on Wednesday for organized team activities, we’re breaking down the depth chart, position-by-position. Training camp will be here before we know it. It’s time to analyze the structure of the Broncos roster.
Today, I’m bending my thought on the running backs. This time last year, this position group was widely considered to be one of the club’s weaknesses, mainly due to inexperience. Now, it’s a strength. Keep in mind, this article isn’t necessarily a prediction of where each player ends up on the depth chart, but rather their role with the team and their future prospects.
RB1. C.J. Anderson
Anderson started off 2014 as the No. 2 back on the depth chart. But when Montee Ball went down with a groin injury, the team turned to Ronnie Hillman, not Anderson. Over the next five weeks, Hillman and Juwan Thompson carried the load behind Peyton Manning. Anderson seemed to be the forgotten man.
When Hillman tweaked his foot in Week 10 vs. the Oakland Raiders, the Broncos finally turned to Anderson and he proceeded to set the league on fire, finishing with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and double digit touchdowns—all while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He saved the Broncos season, because after Manning injured his quad, Anderson carried the load.
Anderson earned a Pro Bowl berth for his efforts. New head coach Gary Kubiak has made it clear that although there will be competition at the position, Anderson is the starting running back moving forward. In Kubiak’s zone running scheme, we could see Anderson put up numbers akin to the days of Clinton Portis. The sky’s the limit for him.
Anderson’s vision, decisiveness and powerful lower body make him a natural fit in Kubiak’s scheme. Provided the Broncos can solidify their offensive line, Anderson is poised to have a prolific 2015 season as the starter.
RB2. Montee Ball
2014 just wasn’t Ball’s year. The Broncos were high enough on their 2013 second round pick to let 1,000-yard rusher Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. All the stars were aligned for Ball to have a breakout season. But then the rug got pulled out from beneath his feet.
It started with having to undergo an appendectomy, which caused him to miss much of the preseason. When he finally made it back to the field, he seemed a little off. It didn’t help that the Broncos O-line was in shambles, often leading to Ball’s first point of contact coming behind the line of scrimmage.
Ball fought hard, however. His 3.53 YPC as the starter was a reflection of the O-line and a rushing scheme that NFL defenses had figured out. But the hits kept on coming, as he tore his groin in Week 5 and was never able to return healthy, eventually landing on season-ending injured reserve.
Going into OTAs, Ball is healthy and motivated. Being rendered a spectator, as his undrafted backup (Anderson) ran roughshod over the NFL, had to sting. Ball maintains that he fully intends on winning the starting job back, but the reality is that it’ll take an injury to Anderson for that to happen.
Ball ran a lot of zone in his collegiate days at Wisconsin. I recently published an All 22 piece on him and after studying the tape, I came away convinced that he will thrive in Kubiak’s zone scheme. He just has to keep his head down, be humble, bide his time and make the most of his opportunities. He’ll get plenty of reps. Don't write Montee Ball off quite yet.
RB3. Ronnie Hillman
After being selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, Hillman’s first two years as a pro were a disappointment. It took him some time to develop an NFL body and when he did see the field, he wasn’t particularly effective.
But as mentioned above, Hillman’s chance to shine came in 2014 when Ball went down. Hillman proved that he has the ability to make plays in the NFL. From Week 5-9, Hillman eclipsed the 100-yard mark twice and averaged 92 total yards from scrimmage per game.
Looking ahead, Hillman projects as a viable third down back and consistent contributor behind Anderson. I don’t think Hillman will ever be an every-down back in the NFL, because of his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame, but he can make plays. It has been speculated that the Broncos could try to trade him, but I don’t see that happening.
Hillman will see some reps behind Anderson and Ball. He proved his mettle in 2014. As a third down option, he’s not the best in pass protection, but he held up alright in that five-game stretch in 2014. This is likely his last year in Denver, as his contract runs out following the season.
RB4. Juwan Thompson
Like Anderson before him, Thompson came to Denver via the undrafted rookie free agent pool. The former Duke Blue Devil made a name for himself in training camp and continued that streak, straight up running over the opposition in preseason action.
He earned a spot on the final 53-man roster. At the time, nobody expected to see Thompson on the field much as a rookie, but the benefits of Ball’s groin injury trickled down to him as well. From Week 5-9, he served as the goal line back and bruiser, to compliment Hillman.
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Over that five-game span, he carried the ball 26 times, rushing for 113 yards and three touchdowns. It was odd to see him get reps over Anderson, who was technically higher on the depth chart. I’ve yet to hear an adequate explanation out of Dove Valley for this pass-over.
But Thompson made the most of his opportunities. He finished his rookie season averaging 5.0 YPC. Moving forward, he could be called upon to play some fullback, but he’d have to add some weight to his 225-pound frame. More likely, we’ll see him get reps late in games to close teams out and rest the guys higher on the depth chart.
RB5. Kapri Bibbs
Like Thompson, Bibbs went undrafted out of Colorado State in 2014. He competed hard in training camp and played very well in the preseason. It wasn’t quite enough to earn a spot on the final roster to start the season, but he was signed to the practice squad.
Bibbs was eventually promoted to the active roster in late October, as a precaution, because it was rumored that other NFL teams were interested in the former Ram, but he didn’t see any reps. The Broncos waived him little more than a month later and he found himself back on the practice squad.
The future is very interesting for Bibbs. He is a natural fit in the zone running scheme and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him leapfrog Thompson or Hillman on the depth chart. Bibbs’ record-setting 31 touchdowns at Colorado State in 2013 proved that he’s an explosive runner, who has a nose for the endzone.
RB6. Jeremy Stewart
Stewart went undrafted in 2012 out of Stanford, and bounced around the league, until the Broncos signed him to their practice squad on October 8th of 2014. Then, in late November, the team promoted him to the active roster when they waived Bibbs.
From Week 14-17, 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.
Moving forward, I don’t see Stewart sticking with the Broncos. The logjam of talented, young backs ahead of him likely means that he’ll find himself on the outside looking in when it comes time to choose the final roster.