The Great Debate: The Denver Broncos’ Running Backs
The 2016 NFL Draft has come and gone. The Denver Broncos are officially off the clock and transitioning into off-season workouts and camps to come in the summer months. We saw some exciting things from General Manager and Hall of Famer John Elway early, as he traded up to the 26th pick in the first round to snag who most everyone in Broncos Country views as the successor and the future of the franchise, Paxton Lynch from the University of Memphis. This surely does sum up the great quarterback debate that was stirring around the Super Bowl 50 champs. Elway later stated that he has “closed talks” with the 49ers signal caller Colin Kaepernick, and told free agent and former Houston’s QB Brian Hoyer that they would also not be signing him as well.
But what I found most intriguing in the draft was the 4th round, 136th pick in this year’s draft: Devontae Booker, a running back out of Utah. This really sparks what I think will be the greatest competition for that position. You have a bruiser, a speedster, and what many claim to be a “complete back”. These are all fantastic elements that lead to this newly debated topic. So let’s have a look at the three contestants in this Battle Royale for the starting gig. We’ll start off with the halfback that had that starting spot when the Broncos raised their third Lombardi Trophy this past February.
C.J. Anderson- RB #22
C.J. Anderson had a very slow start to his 2015 season, unlike his breakout year in 2014. Though the Cal Bear started 15 out of 16 games, he was also plagued with some lingering injuries from the season before that slowed his production in the early going. Rhythm was another downfall as the season progressed. He did catch on fire though as he ran hard into the last few weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs that ended up with a championship. He ultimately racked up 152 carries for 720 rushing yards, and 5 rushing TD’s. He also had 25 receptions for 183 passing yards to end the year. That was a solid season right? It certainly was, but still a tick down in production as Anderson had 849 yards rushing, 8 rushing TD’s, and had 324 yards catching and added two more passing touchdowns in just the previous season, which he also played 15 games. Needless to say, with the news of the Broncos matching the offer sheet of the Miami Dolphins for the restricted free agent for 4 years, 18 million dollars a month ago, the Broncos are serious about keeping him on their roster and have paid him to be their bell cow for years to come. But will he be? Let’s look at his “running mate” and last year’s running back that actually had the better season between the two statistically.
Ronnie Hillman- RB #23
Ronnie Hillman is that quick change of pace back that can make you miss. His nickname on the the team was “Flash.” The Broncos drafted him high in the third round of the 2012 draft to show off that kind of speed in a offense lead by Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. The same offense that set records in the 2013 season. At times this past season in 2015, the Aztec from San Diego State showed why they call him that. Recall the game against the Minnesota Vikings where he ran for a 72 yard touchdown? Yep, those burners came on. Overall for the season Hillman was able to rack up 207 carries, 863 rushing yards, and 7 rushing touchdowns, which was 9th overall in the league. He was also able to contribute 24 receptions for 111 receiving yards. With the injuries and lack of production and finding a rhythm from C.J. this past year, the Bronco tried what he could to carry most of the load. Though there was times of brilliance and poise, there were just games where nothing got going in the running game at all, and Ronnie was only able to run over 100 yards for 4 out all 16 games he played in. The Broncos did bring the halfback back on a 1 year, 2 million dollar deal. But that kind of contract doesn’t exactly exude confidence from the city of Denver. This is what I believe brought on the draft need and the team taking on the last contestant in this debate and the sleeper potential to break out this year we will talk about next.
Devontae Booker- RB #20
The Ute has a quite the track record he left behind at the University of Utah. In his two years starting as the premier running back, Booker was able to pile up over 560 carries, 2,773 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns, and contributed 80 receptions for 624 passing yards and gave the team 2 receiving touchdowns. Booker comes from a Junior College, and is 24 years of age which is unusually older than most rookies in the NFL. He already exhibits maturity and leadership mentality he acquired while at American River College. With most cases, many running backs in the National Football League have a very short window of time they can play at their prime before their bodies and production can’t keep up with their mental fortitude. Booker’s window is a short one, having roughly about 8 solid years left where he can still excel in a highly physical demanding professional sport. The Pac-12 Conference back had also sustained a injury that he is coming back from the previous season, but has looked tremendous in rookie mini-camp, and is back to cutting and running plays effectively and looks to be very ready for Week 1 in September in prime time when the Denver Broncos have their Super Bowl rematch with the Carolina Panthers in Denver, Colorado on a Thursday night.
This is where the debate heats up, especially between the rookie, and the well paid veteran in C.J. Anderson. With Devontae being able to not only be a rushing machine between the tackles, but also be a solid catching receiver, he is seen as a young veteran already and fits that Gary Kubiak’s scheme to a tee. Talks out of rookie camp say it will be easy for him to take the reigns of the backup roll as Hillman was paid mainly to be a asset in case of injuries with the 2015 season being so hot and cold for the runner. But can he wrestle the top spot from Anderson? NFL’s Daniel Jeremiah seems to think that Booker will even start with around 150 carries while Number 22 takes over the rest of the duties per the usual. So on that Thursday night, you may see familiar faces in the offensive lineup, but by the end of the year, are we going to see both a new starting Quarterback, and a brand new Running Back?
The future looks bright but very competitive in Mile High territory. 2016 will be an intriguing one to watch from the defending World Champions.