The Denver Broncos are absolutely stacked on both sides of the ball, but there is one position that brings up some question marks.
Denver's running backs (specifically Willis McGahee) did a great job supporting erratic quarterback Tim Tebow in 2011, but the production from the ground game dipped off in 2012. Only five teams averaged less yards per carry (YPC) than Denver did.
While the Broncos managed to finish in the top half of the league (16th) in rushing yards, there are still question marks surrounding the running backs. Montee Ball was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to help out, and Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno are still on the team.
And, the Broncos have another new candidate in the mix.
C.J. Anderson, who played college football at Cal, was locked up by the Broncos after going undrafted. Anderson put up gaudy numbers in limited action, but he wasn't highly touted coming out of college. It didn't help that Cal went 3-9 and failed to garner any media attention.
Former Cal players Keenan Allen and Steve Williams were drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the third and fourth rounds of the 2013 NFL draft, but no team took a flier on Anderson in the draft.
Anderson only accumulated 126 carries (or 10.5 per game) in 2012, but he amassed 790 rushing yards, or 6.3 YPC. In fewer than 200 carries, Anderson scored 12 touchdowns, so he definitely proved he can make big plays.
The Broncos need a big-play running back to support quarterback Peyton Manning, and many think Ball isn't the answer. While he showed the ability to handle a big workload and put up mind-blowing numbers in college, he isn't extremely athletic.
In fact, Anderson outperformed Ball at the 2013 NFL combine. Anderson posted better results in the vertical leap, the bench press, the broad jump and, most importantly, the 40-yard dash. Anderson ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds, while Ball ran it in 4.66.
Anderson isn't extremely fast, but he is athletic and smart. He is patient and waits for holes to unfold, and he has good vision. The two are surprisingly similar, as Ball also possesses superb vision.
However, while Anderson is faster and posted slightly better results at the combine, he isn't better than Ball. Ball has proven himself more, as he scored 39 touchdowns in 2011.
Ball received a lot of carries, and Anderson didn't. Anderson split time with Isi Sofele and Brendan Bigelow at Cal, and that cost him a ton of touches. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect Anderson to handle a full workload.
Plus, the Broncos have tons of depth at running back, and if Anderson made the 53-man roster, he would be nothing more than a rotation back.
Ball produced more in college, and he has great vision and star potential. Ball is a virtual lock for the 53-man roster, but there will likely be three other spots available.
Hillman isn't going to be a star, but he is extremely quick and can serve as a great change-of-pace back. Hillman is also a virtual lock to make the roster, which would leave just two spots.
Moreno did well in his seven starts last year, and he's likely going to make the roster as well. After McGahee (who was recently released) went down, Moreno averaged a respectable 3.92 YPC. He also racked up 115 and 119 yards in back-to-back games.
Unless Moreno gets hurt (which is a possibility considering his injury history), he should make the roster. That would leave just one spot.
Anderson could seize that spot, but he'll have to continue to turn heads. Jacob Hester appears to be the favorite right now, as he is a serviceable short-yardage back who scored twice on 25 carries last season.
Hester accumulated 92 yards overall and averaged 4.8 YPC in the regular season, which will help him this year. However, Hester isn't the only one who can help in short-yardage situations.
Anderson can help as well.
In 111 career carries, Hester has piled up a mere three touchdowns. In addition, he only ran for 11 yards on eight carries in last season's playoffs. Anderson has done a better job at finding the end zone, which could benefit the Broncos.
In fact, the 224-pound Anderson could even take Hester's job. He has the ability to go up the middle, shed tacklers and pick up yardage in the trenches. If Anderson makes the roster, he and the 215-pound Ball (who can also hold his own in the trenches) could too handle short-yardage scenarios with ease.
Anderson is faster and younger than Hester, and he can help the Broncos in multiple areas as a rotation back. He has more upside than Hester, and if he displays his potential in training camp and in the preseason, he could make the 53-man roster.
Hester won't be able to do much for the Broncos, but Anderson can help in a plethora of ways. Anderson can pick up a good chunks of yardage on a consistent basis, and he can do it by using his strength in short-yardage situations or by waiting for a hole to open up and bursting through it.
Even though Anderson has potential, the Broncos may decide to use the experienced Hester and let the raw Anderson develop on the practice squad. The backfield is crowded, and there may not be a spot for Anderson.
But even if that happens, there's a great chance that Anderson stays with the team. Jeremiah Johnson and Lance Ball, Denver's only other options, aren't eligible for the practice squad.
Three backs are almost penciled in on the roster, and Anderson will have to do a lot to overtake Hester and make the roster. However, even if he doesn't make the roster, he'll likely stay in Denver and make the roster in the future.
Because if Anderson can display the dominance that led to his dazzling numbers in college, he could end up being a key component to Denver's current and future success.
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