There's been plenty of turnover in terms of both coaching staff and philosophy since the last time the Denver Broncos took the field on New Year's Day. Gary Kubiak is gone and so is his signature offensive identity comprised of the zone run and the deadly play-action pass.
Enter offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who successfully transitioned the Broncos from a Kyle Orton offense, to a Tim Tebow, and finally to a Peyton Manning offense during his initial stint at OC in Denver. From the previous regime (Eric Studesville and Tyke Tolbert notwithstanding), McCoy inherits a talented group of running backs. None of them are "his guys", however. Even C.J. Anderson, the veteran of the group, was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, the year after McCoy left to become the head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757651-broncos-sign-defensive-en... But with McCoy's history of adapting his offense around the skill-set of his versatile range of quarterback pupils, it stands to reason that he should be able to devise a system that plays to the strengths of the current Broncos backfield. The Broncos did hire Jeff Davidson to coach the offensive line, a veteran of the NFL ranks who brings with him a power-blocking scheme to Denver.
Perhaps not wanting to stray too far from the past two seasons' personnel both at back and along the offensive line, Denver also hired John Benton, who specializes in the zone-blocking scheme, as an offensive line assistant. After hardly a month, new San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch plucked Benton away to become the OL coach for Kyle Shanahan. It's somewhat of a significant move because it leaves the door open to find out just how committed GM John Elway is to keeping elements of the zone-blocking scheme in the run game, which will probably be reflected in their replacement of Benton.
So just how do the current running backs fit into Denver's plans?
Arguably the biggest financial gaffe of Elway's tenure as GM in Denver was when he placed a low tender on C.J. Anderson and allowed other teams to test the waters on him as a restricted free agent in 2016. Forced to either match a generous offer sheet from the Miami Dolphins or else lose Anderson (at a time when Osweiler, Trevathan, Jackson, and Manning had just walked out the door), Elway gave Anderson a deal that guarantees him a base salary of $2.9 million in 2017. So, needless to say, he won't be going anywhere.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757867-compensatory-picks-how-el... It's hard to be particularly concerned about Anderson when he showed that he can be successful behind either a zone or a power-blocking scheme. One might argue that he might actually be better in the PBS, which the Broncos featured in Adam Gase's last year as OC in 2014. Despite only starting the last seven games of that season, Anderson rushed for 849 yards, reeled in 34 passes for 324 yards, and scored 10 total touchdowns.
A lot of that can be attributed to a better offensive line, as well. Ryan Clady was healthy at the time and the Broncos had moved Louis Vasquez over to fill the void at right tackle which, combined with the Hulk-like blocking of Virgil Green, created plenty of lanes for C.J. to scamper through on the right side.
The big question this year is whether or not he can stay healthy. Anderson was lost last year after just seven games, and the Broncos suffered immensely on offense as a result. It seems like a good idea, both for production and preservation, to platoon Anderson with someone else rather than giving him the full load. 15-20 carries plus a few targets seem like the sweet spot for maximum Andersonness. Both physically and emotionally, he'll still be the leader of the pack in 2017.
Of course, when talking about platooning C.J. Anderson with someone else, the primary candidate is second-year pro Devontae Booker. Booker is the most prototypical back on the roster, but he struggled at times last year to make quick decisions and to shed tacklers. That being said, he's a dynamic receiver in addition to being a capable runner, racking up 265 yards receiving to go with 612 yards on the ground.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757630-okung-out-where-does-denv... Booker may not be capable of handling the load by himself, though. With Anderson still healthy in the first half of the season, Booker averaged 4.7 yards per carry. After Anderson was gone, that average dropped to 2.9 over the remaining nine games. Booker did manage to finish strong in the last two games, especially against the Oakland Raiders, when he dropped 109 scrimmage yards and a pair of touchdowns on them in the season finale.
When it comes to the shift in offensive philosophy, Booker is a bit of a mystery. He played in a zone scheme in college at Utah, but when he got to the NFL, he struggled hitting the holes with decisiveness, as I mentioned earlier, which is required of a zone running back. Some of that might be attributed to a rookie wall and the fact that poor offensive line play made holes hard to come by, but Booker might surprise and find some success in a different scheme in 2017 as the Robin to C.J. Anderson's Batman.
Kapri Bibbs drops beats, but never the football. After grinding away on the practice squad for two years, Bibbs pushed his way to the active roster in favor of Ronnie Hillman, Denver's leading rusher from the year before. Before the turning-point injury to Anderson, Bibbs was used sparingly, as Kubiak tended to feature just two primary running backs over the course of a game.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757836-5-under-the-radar-free-ag... When he got his shot, Bibbs capitalized. In Denver's Sunday night loss to the Oakland Raiders, Bibbs caught a dump-off pass from Trevor Siemian and weaved 69 yards into the end zone, providing one positive in an otherwise frustrating night. He looked like he was ready to break out against the Jacksonville Jaguars, scampering for 49 yards on just five carries, but Bibbs injured his ankle in the middle of his hot streak, ending his season.
Overall, Bibbs proved the benefits of developing a player on the practice squad for multiple years. He averaged 6.6 yards every time he touched the ball, showing explosive potential out of the backfield. He's not exclusively geared to the zone either. Bibbs was picked up when Gase was coordinator in 2014, and successfully transitioned to the Kubiak system afterwards.
It's hard to expect Justin Forsett to stick around in Denver for a number of reasons. At 31, Forsett is mulling over retirement after nine years in the league. He was a valuable contributor after Anderson and Bibbs went down, but he never really anything other than good veteran instincts and toughness. He also looked like he slowed down a bit near the end of the season, which is to be expected from a back over 30.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757305-finding-broncos-5-sleeper... Forsett had his moments, including a 64-yard burst in the last game against the Raiders, but it seems improbable that he would beat out Bibbs for the third running back spot in camp even if he decided against retirement and signed another one-year deal with the Broncos. He's also best-suited for the Kubiak offense, which he proved with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014, running for a career-best 1,266 yards in the zone system. That year, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and this year it was only 3.6 as he split carries with Booker.
It's not impossible for him to hang on and as a fan of his since he was at Cal with Marshawn Lynch, I'll always have a soft spot for him, but it seems more likely that he'll hang 'em up sooner rather than later. There's always the chance someone gets hurt in camp and he gets a call, though.
Juwan Thompson showed a lot of versatility and tough running in 2014 when he was brought in as an undrafted rookie out of Duke (the Manning-Cutcliffe connection at work), but he was mostly under-utilized after Kubiak was hired the next year, getting just 26 carries in the past two seasons combined.
For someone who doesn't have a ton of lateral quickness and is better at running through a defender than running around them, Thompson is undoubtedly a better fit for the power-blocking scheme than the zone, which calls for better cutting ability and side-to-side agility. In the power system, Thompson averaged exactly five yards per carry as a rookie, even breaking off runs of 47 and 21 yards in the process.
It won't matter as long as Andy Janovich is healthy, but Thompson can also play a little bit of fullback and is a very effective goal line runner. Whether or not he can push Bibbs for the third spot will be a matter of what McCoy wants out of that slot on the depth chart--a scat back or a hammer.
There's a lot of good running back talent in the pipeline this year, but I don't think Denver will bite until at least the third day given that they re-signed Anderson to a lucrative deal and drafted Booker in the fourth round last year.
The obvious exception is if someone too good to pass up falls into Elway's lap. Because of the Ezekiel Elliott phenomenon after the Dallas Cowboys selected him with the fourth overall pick, the two consensus first-round backs, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, will be off the board well before the Broncos get their turn at 20 (Fournette especially).
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757624-elway-s-approach-to-winni... It's a deep class, though, so if Elway finds good value I'd never put it past him to pull the trigger on a good deal. Running back certainly isn't an area of need, but that doesn't mean it can't be upgraded, and far be it from Denver's front office to sit on their hands if they have a chance to ignite a stagnant offense. The city of Denver would collectively lose bowel control if Christian McCaffrey was available in the second round, and I think it might be too much for Elway to pass up as well.
Aside from White Lightning himself, Donnel Pumphrey, Curtis Samuel, and Corey Clement would all provide value in the later rounds. Our draft wonks will go into much greater detail in the next couple of months.
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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.