The introduction of Utah running back Devontae Booker was a spectacular one. Former quarterback Jake Plummer skied down a powdery white mountain, greeted by fanfare at the bottom of the slope, and announced the Denver Broncos fourth-round pick.
Pegged by a good portion of draft analysts, like NFL Network's Mike Mayock, as the second-best back in the Draft behind fourth-overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, the (then) 23-year-old Booker slid until day three, where he became the seventh player to be drafted at his position.
Just a couple of picks before the Booker selection, the Seattle Seahawks took power back Alex Collins. A round later, the Chicago Bears found a steal in Jordan Howard, who went on to run for more than 1,300 yards in his rookie campaign.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1768681-5-broncos-vets-on-the-ros... That's an interesting juxtaposition of backs that went on the final day of the Draft. Booker finds himself of that group both literally and figuratively, getting plenty more action and finding more success than Collins in his first year, but also missing out on the breakout rookie season that made Howard the best non-Elliott running back pick of 2016.
Booker's first season in orange and blue was an inconsistent effort, occasionally flashing star potential, but also showing he was prone to mistakes and struggling to handle the load as the featured back in the Broncos offense.
The ups and downs can really be encapsulated by looking at the stark contrast from Week 1 to Week 17. Booker fumbled away his first carry in the NFL in the Thursday night opener against the Carolina Panthers. Months later, in the finale, Booker averaged 6.8 yards per touch and scored two first-half touchdowns to put away the Oakland Raiders.
Starting in the preseason, Booker didn't make much noise, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in his three games, but a strong showing on the practice field made the Broncos comfortable enough to let go of veteran Ronnie Hillman, who led the team in rushing the previous year, and roll into the 2016 season with the trio of Booker, C.J. Anderson, and Kapri Bibbs.
In the opener, Booker received just two carries after his initial fumble, but bounced back a week later against the Indianapolis Colts with 46 yards on nine carries.
Booker's first real breakout performance came on Monday Night Football against the Houston Texans, teaming up with Anderson to bash the Texans defense up and down the field, picking up 83 yards on 17 carries and his first touchdown, a hard-nosed plunge into the end zone from a yard out.
Unfortunately, the aftermath of this game would prove to be a turning point in Booker's rookie season. C.J. Anderson injured his knee during the game, which would cause him to miss the rest of the season, forcing Booker into the lead role, where he would carry the ball a total of 95 times in the following five games.
Without Anderson to set the tone, Booker's efficiency took a major hit, averaging under three yards per carry in back-to-back weeks against the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders and never again surpassed 80 yards on the ground.
Booker was able to put together a couple of solid performances in Week 10 and Week 12, combining for 189 total yards in the two games, but still averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry.
For the last part of his load-bearing stretch of the season, Booker was starting to be surpassed by Kapri Bibbs, who turned heads with a 69-yard touchdown reception against the Raiders and averaged almost 10 yards per carry in the first half of the win against the Jacksonville Jaguars before suffering an ankle injury that would prematurely end his season.
When the team brought in Justin Forsett, that marked a decrease in Booker's carries for the rest of the year.
The loss to the Tennessee Titans became the low point of Booker's rookie campaign, when he carried the ball just three times for a grand total of one yard. The next couple of outings were thoroughly uneventful, save for a Christmas-night fumble in the humiliating loss to the Chiefs.
But in the finale, Booker reminded Broncos fans what he could provide when given a capable sidekick. Everything clicked in the run game, perhaps as an ode to Gary Kubiak in his final game as head coach, and Booker combined with Justin Forsett to gash the Raiders.
Booker carried the load early, capping off a perfect first drive with an 11-yard touchdown on a stretch run in which tight end Virgil Green sealed off the right side and gave Booker a clear path to the end zone.
Forsett softened up the Oakland D with a 64-yarder in the second quarter, and then Booker returned to close the half by splitting out wide to the left, catching a screen pass from Trevor Siemian and weaved back outside for 43 yards and his second touchdown of the game. A high note to end an up-and-down first year.
In total, Booker carried the ball 174 times for 612 yards (3.5 yards per carry) with four touchdowns. He also caught 31 passes for 265 yards and a score.
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It's hard to blame Booker's mid-season struggles completely on him. The Broncos offensive line was, at times, as bad at sealing off lanes in the running game as they were protecting the passer. Still, despite being a powerful runner, Booker was unable to break tackles with any sort of consistency. He also had a hard time capitalizing when he broke into the open field, as his longest carry of the year went for just 18 yards.
If the Broncos could have a second chance, they undoubtedly would pick Jordan Howard at the end of the fourth round. Of course, with hindsight being 20/20, Howard would have gone in the first round if all 32 teams knew what he could bring to the table.
This offseason's coaching change brings with it a new offensive philosophy and a power-blocking scheme from new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. Booker played in a zone system at Utah and was drafted to fit Kubiak's similar scheme, but at 220 pounds, he has plenty of size and power to run in between the tackles behind a (hopefully) improved offensive line.
There's a good chance the Broncos will land competition in the running back-rich 2017 NFL Draft, but Booker is still a good bet to end up as the Robin to Anderson's Batman in the Denver backfield.
I don't think he's destined to ever steal the starting job like so many pundits prognosticated he would ahead of his rookie year, but he's going to be at least an excellent role player, and considering where the Broncos drafted Booker, that's an excellent return for their investment.