Player Analysis: Broncos RBs
By: Steve Picciano: (Twitter: @RandomGrenades)
Player Analysis: Broncos RBs
Time is running out
Training camps open for most teams by Friday (7/28), and that means reports will be flying around the FF community. Beat reporters will be analyzing everything from how many passes were dropped in practice, to who had the nastiest hangnail. Amidst it all, the truth lies out there. Those golden pieces of information that, if acted upon, could be the difference between setting your team up for long-term success or immediate failure.
Some opportunistic FF owners know that these may be the last days to grab those hidden gems before the spotlight of training camp shines brightly for all to see. Those of us who take the risk of crunching numbers or writing player analysis articles do so with the hopes of helping others in the community uncover those gems before it’s too late. As such, I’ve decided to try and make sense out of one of the messier situations entering training camp, the Denver Broncos backfield.
Fortunately, the Broncos open training camp with just 6 RBs on the roster, so the path to a starting role could be shorter than on most teams. There’s an interesting mix of talent and experience among the group. Despite the fact that there’s no prefect fit among them, it’s entirely probable that a clear leader emerges who might be worth holding as a depth/match-up player, so let’s take a closer look.
Anderson is as close to an incumbent as the team has for the position. He’s seen his share of ups & downs over the past 3 seasons, so it’s difficult to simply anoint him as the favorite to win the starting job, although I believe that’s exactly what he’ll do.
Big things were expected from Anderson after he burst onto the scene in week 10 of the 2014 season, quickly amassing over 1,100 total yards (849 rush, 324 rec) and 10 total TDs (8 rush, 2 rec) predominantly in just the last 8 weeks of the season, where he tallied 100+ combined yards in 6 of those games and continued the run into the playoffs.
Anderson seemingly took a step back in 2015 tallying only 720 rush yards with 5 TDs and 183 rec yards with 0 TDs despite playing in 15 games. However, there were still some positive takeaways from is performance as he managed to average 4.7 YPC for the regular season, despite averaging only 10.1 carries/game. In addition, he stepped up his performance in the playoffs to amass 234 rush yards and 2 rush TDs in Denver’s 3-game playoff run.
It surprised many in 2016 when the team signed Anderson to a 4-year/$18 mil contract, mainly in an effort to keep him from joining the Miami Dolphins. It later appeared the move was more than just for show as he averaged a more robust 15.7 carries/game. His results were a bit mixed, however. He posted a respectable 437 rush yards and 5 total TDs thru 7 games before being placed on IR with a meniscus injury. What stands out are that his two best performances came against the Carolina Panthers (92 rush yards/1 rush TD & 47 rec yards/1 rec TD) and the Houston Texans (107 rush yards/1 rush TD), who finished the year with the 6th and 12th best rush defenses respectively. This shows that, at times, he was able to get decent production against good competition, despite having to run behind an offensive line that ranked just 24th according to PFF (more on the o-line later).
You can see here that there are some things to really like about Anderson’s abilities. To begin with, he has excellent vision which allows him to operate successfully in Denver’s Zone scheme. He lacks top-end speed, but has good burst through the gap once it’s been identified and even better footwork, which allows him to make quick cuts in tight spaces, thereby making it difficult for LBs to take clean shots. He also runs with good power, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that he checks in at 225 lbs. while only measuring 5’ 8”. I’m not saying that he’s looked like this in every game, but he has the ability to, which might be worth more than he’s getting credit for right now in the FF community.
Anderson has the tools to be an effective starting RB. Key word here, “Effective”. Do not take him thinking you’re getting Le’Veon Bell, or Todd Gurley, or even the upside of a relative unknown with big expectations, like Leonard Fournette. At best, Anderson keeps his status as presumptive starter, handles the majority of carries (60/40 split) and delivers some good performances. He could be considered as a depth/match-up play.
I shouldn’t need to tell you how good Charles was just a few years ago. As the starting RB with Kansas City, he was a must own in fantasy football because of his explosive runs and incredible receiving skills. You hear this term applied to more guys than it should be, but he really could take it to the house on any given play. But this is the NFL and nothing is forever.
Charles rebounded from his first ACL tear in 2011 without a problem and registered over 1,700 total yards. Unfortunately, the second recovery hasn’t been quite as smooth. Charles left the field during week 5 of the 2015 season, and really hasn’t been able to get back on. He played in just 3 games in 2016 for a grand total of 12 carries and 2 receptions before going back on IR after week 7. In the meantime, he hit the dreaded age of 30 and was released by the Chiefs prior to the start of the 2017 season.
Charles signed a 1-year/$1 million deal with Denver, which is barely above the $600k minimum veteran contract. I’m loathe to even call this a “prove it” deal because everything about it wreaks of Denver just trying to squeeze a last drop of production out of Charles with no intention to extend him past this year. By all reports, he’s been cleared for practice, but is being “eased” into training camp to allow his recovery to continue.
Honestly, there isn’t enough film from the 2016 season to review, and looking at any older footage would be doing a disservice to FF owners since we have no way of knowing if Charles can regain his pre-injury form until he suits up.
If Charles makes the final roster, and it’s entirely possible that he does since there are so few RBs entering camp, I don’t believe he warrants handling the bulk of the carries due to his injury risk. I believe Denver could keep him as a depth player, and even delay when he enters the field until part-way through the season. It’s worth monitoring his actions in the pre-season games to see if they’re comfortable enough with him on the field this early. If they are, he could be worth a very deep roster spot, but it’s not likely.
If there’s a player on the roster currently being forecast among the FF community to threaten Anderson’s role as incumbent starter, it’s Booker. The 4th-round selection from the 2016 draft came into the NFL posting solid numbers at Utah. Unfortunately for Booker, a torn meniscus late in his final season kept him from participating in the NFL Combine, which may have contributed to his later selection.
Although Booker posted over 1,200 rush yards in his final season at Utah, a closer look at his performances show that were not always dominant, such as managing only 69 yards on 22 carries vs. Michigan to open the season or 98 yards on 22 carries vs. Oregon. In fact, while Booker had 7 games that topped the 100-yard mark, he required over 30+ carries to get there in 5 of the games. More troubling is the fact that he had a YPC average under 5.0 in 4 of the contests, including a dismal 3.9 YPC on 31 carries vs. Utah St.
After showing some promise in the week 7 game vs. Houston, in which he ultimately had to replace Anderson for the year due to injury, Booker had a tremendous drop-off in production. He handled the ball only 10 times for 22 yards the following week vs. Oakland (who had one of the softer run defenses – ranked 23rd). He then carried the ball 24 times in each of the next two games (vs. New Orleans and Kansas City) for only 76 & 79 yards respectively. The Saints’ rush defense ranked 14th and Kansas City 26th, so a quality RB getting 24 touches should’ve had decent success in these games. In fact, after his week 7 performance, Booker only broke the 4.0 YPC threshold twice, in the final 2 games, when he had a 5.1 YPC average on 5 carries vs. Kansas City, and 4.1 YPC on 14 carries vs. Oakland.
Living in Arizona, I had a chance to see my fair share of Utah Utes games, and I can tell you that he seemed to be a very upright, sluggish runner at times. There really wasn’t anything about him that jumped out at me. You can see here vs. UCLA that, although he had some decent runs, there is a definite lack of explosiveness and footwork. He picks his gap and powers through, but doesn’t really create many runs with his feet. I will give him a nod for his pass protection. This game was very emblematic of his performances at Utah. He had a nice total of 156 yards, but it took him 33 carries to get there, which gives him a 4.7 YPC. That number would be fine on the NFL, but in college you come to expect a more dominant performance from a top-tier RB against a weaker defense.
Perhaps the best comparison between Booker and Anderson can be seen here vs. Houston. Booker (#23) runs with similar power to Anderson (#22), but you can see a noticeable difference in the footwork. Booker picks his gap and then proceeds to plow ahead, whereas Anderson displays the tight, choppy footwork that is more apt to freeze defenders. Neither of these guys are the home-run hitters that Charles once was, but having the ability to slip a LB and square up against the SS can lead to more yards.
Although Booker can certainly contribute to the Broncos running game, he seems more suited to a short-yardage power role, as his style suggests. He failed to capture the starting role when given the opportunity last year, and a broken wrist is now forcing him to miss valuable time in training camp. Much like with Charles, I would only recommend spending a slot on Booker if there’s a clear change in his ability. I would not recommend using a spot to handcuff Booker to either Anderson or Charles, or vice-versa.
Henderson comes into the NFL from a small school, and we’re not just talking about a school that wasn’t in the Power 5 conferences. His time at Coastal Carolina was very productive, putting up no fewer than 1,100 rush yards and 7 TDs in each of his final three seasons, and never needing more than 234 carries in a season to do it. Henderson stands 5’7”, but weighs in at a respectable 208 lbs., and has a frame very much in the mold of FF hero Maurice Jones-Drew. Denver felt comfortable enough to use a 6th-round pick on Henderson even though there were bigger names at RB still available.
Although hard to find, you can see one of his 2014 performances here. It’s clear that he exhibits a combination of skills that could make him successful in the NFL, namely excellent footwork and power. He seems fairly adequate at being able to pick up blitzes, which shouldn’t be a surprise given his leverage advantage and should go a long way towards getting him on the field in the NFL.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few things he needs to work on:
-First, his vision is good but not great, and you can see him overlook making the occasional cut-back move that would’ve sprung him for more yardage.
-Second, defenders almost have him dead-to-rights if they get to him in the backfield. He just needs a few steps to build up enough power to break tackles at the line, but if he doesn’t get them, it’s over. That’s probably something he’s going to have to live with due to his smaller size, and may be problematic since the gaps in the NFL are much smaller.
-Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, his ball security needs vast improvement. Henderson fumbled the ball 16 times over his 4-year career at Coastal Carolina, which is a fumble rate of about 51.1 based on his 818 total touches (rushing & receiving). That was the absolute worst rate of all rookie RBs in the 2017 draft. That won’t fly in the NFL. It’s somewhat of a surprise given that his hands measured 9.5” at the NFL Combine, but you can see that he sometimes has a tendency to swing his arm out when making cuts, so he needs to practice keeping the ball high & tight and not holding it like a loaf of bread.
By all accounts, Henderson has had some early success in the first days of training camp, especially with Charles doing limited work and Booker sitting out. If he can correct the negative issues, I would fully expect him to see time as a 3rd-down RB this year, but I don’t believe he’s being considered as a full-time starter at this point.
Denver has brought in two notable veteran RBs (besides Charles) to participate in camp, Bernard Pierce and Stevan Ridley, along with relative unknown Juwan Thompson. I’m not going to spend a lot of time here, for obvious reasons.
Pierce never lived up to expectations in Baltimore and failed to take over the starting RB job following the suspension/firing of Ray Rice. From there, he’s been somewhat of a journeyman but failed to impress any staff to sign him long-term. I don’t expect that to change here.
Ridley had a brief stint as a bonafide starting RB who put up over 1,200 yards and 12 TDs with the Patriots in 2012 before suffering an ACL injury in 2014. He spent his 2015 season with the RB needy Jets, but failed to post more than 340 rush yards. 2016 wasn’t any better as he failed to capture a measureable role despite being with the Lions, Colts and Falcons. This is his last chance in the NFL in all likelihood.
Despite being just 25 years old, Thompson has virtually no accrued stats to show for his 3 years in the NFL. At best, he could hope to hang on as a 5th RB or even be placed on the practice squad, but there’s no FF value here.
With HC Vance Joseph being primarily defensive-minded, one has to take a closer look at returning OC Mike McCoy to factor in any impact from the sidelines on this group. Although McCoy ended his recent tenure with the San Diego Chargers by having a go-to RB in Melvin Gordon, he’s no stranger to having to piece together a RBBC. His 2012 Broncos offense was led by a mix of Willis McGahee, “No-Show” Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman with 731, 525 & 330 rush yards respectively. A format he would repeat in 2014 with the Chargers by using a mix of Ryan Matthews, Brandon Oliver and Donald Brown. That being said, I don’t think McCoy pushes any of the RBs into a truly dominant role, and instead relies on a mix of 3 players, with one getting a majority share of carries.
Denver seems to have taken the quality issues of their offensive line very seriously. They made OT Garrett Bolles their 1st-round selection in 2017, signed OT Menelik Watson away from the Raiders and traded for veteran G Allen Barbre. These moves should boost the overall performance of the run game and give them much needed depth at almost every position on the line.
Although it would be easy to paint this situation as one to completely avoid for the sake of fantasy football, we should all remember that depth is key in a long season, and if you’re able to lock onto the player who becomes the “leader” of this motley bunch, it could serve you well as injuries and bye-weeks take their toll, and they always do.
Given the expected improvement of the offensive line, his particular skill-set, and the fact that Denver will most likely feature a ball-control/defensive game-plan, I would feel comfortable deep-stashing C.J. Anderson with one of my final roster spots in the hopes that he can stay healthy and top out in the high-end of an 800-1,000 yard/8-10 TD performance range. As his salary is set to increase significantly in 2018, which could trigger an early release, I would only offer a 1-year contract.
For those who may be looking longer-term, a late flyer on De’Angelo Henderson makes sense as he could see some 3rd-down work this year, and work towards a larger role going forward. Even with higher expectations for the future, I wouldn’t offer greater than a 3-year contract just in case his fumbling issues continue.