The Broncos and Mike Shanahan developed quite a reputation for running the ball over the past 14 seasons. Denver basically became known as Running Back Central, where Shanahan and backs coach Bobby Turner turned several late-rounders into stars. While Shanny and Turner worked their magic in 2008 by turning seventh-rounder Peyton Hillis into a Denver cult hero, the season was noted more for its multitude of backfield injuries. New coach Josh McDaniels is no stranger to running-back attrition, as the 2008 Patriots suffered a similar fate; rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis started 3 games after being elevated from the practice squad.
Lesson learned, McDaniels and GM Brian Xanders spent the offseason turning over the depth chart. Among the pair's first moves were cutting P.J. Pope, Alex Haynes and Anthony Alridge; the departure of Cory Boyd followed soon after. Xanders and McDaniels began adding new runners at the start of free agency, signing Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan and J.J. Arrington in short order. Next came the draft, and the consensus of fans and experts alike was that Denver would emerge with at least one more back; the only question was when that would occur.
Although several fans were wishing for the Broncos to select Knowshon Moreno out of Georgia, most were expecting Denver to go defense-defense and fortify the front 7 with their two first-round picks (#12 and #18). While it appears that Xanders and McDaniels were hoping for such a scenario, the draft day board did not fall that way; highly-ranked 3-4 defenders Tyson Jackson and B.J. Raji went ahead of Denver's slot to Kansas City and Green Bay, respectively. Once their turn came around at #12, Denver's goal was to choose Moreno and DE/LB Robert Ayers with their two selections, in no particular order. Hearing that San Diego was trying to trade up to #13 in order to nab Moreno if Denver passed on the running back, Xanders and McDaniels pounced on the Georgia star.
Following the draft, Denver signed Kestahn Moore as an undrafted free agent; Moore was subsequently released in June. In the week following the draft, Denver cut Selvin Young, who had been projected as the starting back in 2008 before injuries derailed his season. The Broncos then added Darius Walker to the roster, who the Texans had chosen not to re-sign. J.J. Arrington's knee problems led to a failed physical and his eventual release in late May; the transaction cost the Broncos $100,000.
After the break, we'll take a deeper look at who the Broncos enter training camp with, and some expectations as to how the competition will play out:
#27 / Running Back / Denver Broncos
Born: Jul 16, 1987
How Acq: 2009 Draft (1st Round, 12th Overall)
Moreno arrives in Denver with the highest expectations for a rookie back since Bobby Humphrey was supposed to help put John Elway over the top in 1989. Although several stars have occupied the Broncos backfield over the past 15 years (Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns), each player was able to fly under the radar before assuming the starting role. Not so for Knowshon, whose name is a combination of his father's moniker (Knowledge) and his mother's first name (Varashon). At Middletown South HS in New Jersey, Moreno completed his career as the state's all-time leading scorer and second all-time leading rusher in carrying Middletown to three straight championship titles. Knowshon's accolades at Georgia include being named the SEC's Freshman of the Year in 2007 and an AFCA All-American in 2008. He also joined Herschel Walker as the only Bulldogs to compile back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. It should also be noted that Moreno had 551 touches at Georgia and never fumbled.
Accomplishments aside, Knowshon brings a wide-ranging skill set to the Denver backfield; Coach McDaniels has spoken of Moreno's abilities as a runner, pass catcher and blocker. Wes Bunting of National Football Post wrote pre-draft that "(Knowshon)'s vision, toughness and ability to make people miss are rare." Meanwhile, Russ Lande of The War Room wrote, "Moreno is one of the most physical running back prospects our scouts have evaluated in years. Despite his lack of elite speed and burst, he is faster than expected and consistently outruns defenders who have angles on him. What's truly impressive is his ability to move well in tight quarters, a trait that separates the good NFL backs from the elite ones. He also is a polished receiver."
While it is difficult to project just how much Moreno will play in 2009, it is safe to say that Denver drafted him to be their #1 running back. During McDaniels' four years running the Patriots' offense, he never had a workhorse back at full health; therefore, it is uncertain whether McDaniels truly favors the committee approach he appears to, or a feature back to carry the bulk of the load. That said, look for Knowshon to emerge as Denver's de facto starting running back and to catch a lot more passes than we're used to seeing out of the Denver backfield.
Moreno is not yet under contract; naturally, how quickly he signs a deal may effect his development with the Broncos. As the twelfth pick, a simple look at Ryan Clady's contract (six years, $14.75 million incl. $11.415 million in guarantees) offers the framework for Knowshon's expected deal (with guarantees about 10% higher). Either way, he is quite obviously a lock to make the roster and should receive significant playing time for the Broncos in '09. Knowshon just celebrated his 22nd birthday on Thursday.
#28 / Running Back / Denver Broncos
Born: Oct 06, 1978
Exp: 9th Year
How Acq: 2009 Free Agency (Philadelphia)
Contract: 2/27/2009: Signed a four-year, $10 million contract. The deal includes $1.8 million guaranteed. 2009-2012: Under Contract, 2013: Free Agent
Buckhalter signed with the Broncos in March after 8 seasons with the Eagles, during which he carried the ball 476 times for 2,155 yards (4.5 YPA) and 18 touchdowns in 74 games. CB also has 85 career receptions for 930 yards and 4 touchdowns. While these numbers would suggest low mileage on Buckhalter's knees, those joints haven't been too kind to Correll over the years; a torn ACL in his left knee cost him the 2002 season, while the 2004 and 2005 campaigns were lost to a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. However, Correll has been active for 49 out of a possible 53 games over the past 3 seasons in Philly (including playoffs). 2008 saw Buckhalter at his most productive (in terms of yards from scrimmage) since his rookie season, as he gained 369 yards rushing and 324 yards receiving, along with 4 total touchdowns. He did not fumble in 2008.
Shortly after Denver signed Buckhalter, he was unceremoniously linked to a drug dealer during a Pennsylvania court case. Fortunately, the convicted dealer denied selling marijuana to Buckhalter; no charges have been filed against the running back.
During his time in Philadelphia, Buckhalter was the primary backup to Brian Westbrook, filling in as the starter when necessary but averaging only 7.6 touches per game. While that number may rise in Denver, don't expect his role to change significantly. The Broncos have added Buckhalter for his versatility; Scouts, Inc. says, "Buckhalter is a productive back with a good combination of size and speed, displays good run skills and acceleration through the hole, has above-average hands with good open-field run after the catch ability." As stated above, the Broncos drafted Knowshon Moreno to be their top back; Buckhalter will get his touches, but he is still primarily a backup. It should also be noted that Correll has gotten reps as a kick returner, having taken back 37 kicks for 798 yards (21.6 YPR) for Philly in 2007.
Buckhalter signed a four-year deal in February, including $1.8 million in guarantees and worth as much as $10 million over the length of the contract. Salary details were not released. Those guarantees mean Buckhalter is a virtual lock to make the roster; of course, past history suggests a trip to the IR is always a possibility. Correll will turn 31 following Denver's Week 4 game versus Dallas.
#32 / Running Back / Denver Broncos
Born: Nov 11, 1978
Exp: 9th Year
How Acq: 2009 Free Agency (New England)
Contract: 3/4/2009: Signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract. The deal included a $500,000 signing bonus. 2009-2010: Under Contract, 2011: Free Agent
Also signed at the outset of free agency, LaMont Jordan joins his fourth NFL team in 2009, and his third squad in three seasons. A versatile back, Jordan racked up 1,588 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns for the Raiders in 2005. However, it was his only standout season in a career thus far marked by underachievement. After spending the 2008 season with the Patriots, Jordan has stated his preference was to stay in New England; when that opportunity did not arise, he chose to follow Josh McDaniels westward. Perhaps he sensed that McDaniels knows best how to utilize his skills; although he did not catch any passes in 2008, Jordan did rack up his best YPA (4.5) on the ground since 2004, with 363 yards gained on 80 carries. What makes Jordan's lack of receptions in '08 stand out is that he hauled in 70 passes during that career-best 2005 season. LaMont fumbled once in 2008.
After spending four years as an understudy to future-HOFer Curtis Martin in New York, Jordan received an $11 million bonus to head west to Oakland. After that productive first season with the Raiders, injuries and perhaps a bit of laziness cut down Jordan's playing time and output in subsequent years. Last month, LaMont had some interesting comments which alluded to his attitude in prior years, saying he was "out here for the offseason program, something I’ve never really done throughout my career...I want to play at a lot less (weight) than what I’ve been playing. ...I never really put in the work to being my best, and that’s what I’m here doing now."
At his best and when healthy, Jordan is quite a load out of the backfield, packing 230 pounds onto a stout 5'10" frame. As those numbers would suggest, Jordan is not an elusive back, but one who is difficult to tackle. Scouts, Inc. says Jordan "can fill a need as a power back who catches the ball out of the backfield and can be hard to tackle once he gets to the second level or catches the ball in the open field." Expect Jordan to be a threat in short-yardage and goal-line situations for Denver, and possibly as a receiver out of the backfield. His knowledge and experience from spending 2008 with McDaniels in New England will surely help him in Denver.
Jordan signed a two-year deal including a $500,000 signing bonus and worth as much as $2.5 million. Like Buckhalter, Jordan's salary is unknown. His small bonus means LaMont is quite expendable in a salary-cap sense; but if he does show up in shape for camp, Jordan's experience with McDaniels in NE, excellent hands and size should make him a keeper. Durability has been an issue for Jordan at times, as a torn MCL landed him in IR in 2006 and calf problems kept him from dressing for eight games in 2008. LaMont will turn 31 after the Broncos' Week 9 contest versus Pittsburgh.
#22 / Fullback / Denver Broncos
Born: Jan 21, 1986
Exp: 2nd Year
How Acq: 2008 Draft (7th round, 227th overall)
Contract: 7/16/2008: Signed a four-year, $1.755 million contract. The deal included a $49,800 signing bonus. 2009: $385,000, 2010: $470,000, 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent
As mentioned in the intro, Peyton Hillis went from nearly undrafted to Denver folk hero in a matter of months, thanks to the bone-crushing hits he dished out; and that's when he was carrying the ball. Although Hillis was a star running back in high school, he was relegated to fullback in his time at Arkansas thanks to the arrival of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. After the Broncos selected him, Hillis was seen as a fullback with great hands to catch passes out in the flat. He certainly showed off those skills during Denver's Week 9 loss to Miami, tallying 7 receptions for an eye-popping 116 yards and a touchdown. But his role would grow...
Injuries to Selvin Young, Michael Pittman, Ryan Torain and Andre Hall left Hillis as the Broncos' primary ball-carrier midway through Denver's game in Cleveland on Nov. 6. Hillis punished opposing defenses for several weeks, highlighted by a 22-carry, 129-yard effort with a touchdown at a rainy Meadowlands (with your trusty author in attendance) against the Jets. Unfortunately, Peyton's wonderful rookie campaign came crashing down the next week as a circus-like catch resulted in a torn hamstring against the Chiefs. Despite the brief cameo atop the RB chart, Hillis managed to rack up 343 rushing yards (which led the team, sadly) with a 5.0 YPA and an impressive 5 TDs. His receiving numbers were also notable, with 14 catches for 179 yards and a stunning 12.8 YPR. While these are relatively small samples which should not be extrapolated to a full season, Peyton's statistics are surely evidence that he is a playmaker with versatile skills and a promising future. By the way, Peyton did not fumble in 2008.
The arrival of Moreno and Buckhalter indicate that dreams of Peyton Hillis as Denver's workhorse back are distant from fruition. However, one cannot envision the Broncos' 2009 season without a hefty role for Hillis. As Peyton related to his hometown paper last month, Josh McDaniels recognizes the player's wide skill set; he had the second-year player "getting snaps at running back, wide receiver, fullback and tight end." McDaniels offered a glowing review of Hillis, saying "He's got great hands, and he's a very tough runner to bring down when you give him the ball. So he'll do a lot different things for us." Look for Peyton to fulfill myriad roles in 2009; he'll be featured at times in one-back sets, he'll be motioning out wide to catch passes, he'll be lining up at times as a fullback, and maybe we'll even see him as the tailback in a two-back set from time to time.
Hillis is entering the second year of his four-year rookie deal which will pay him a salary of $385,000 in 2009. He is a lock for the roster and should see significant playing time. Peyton doesn't turn 24 until during the 2009 Playoffs.
#46 / Fullback / Denver Broncos
Born: Mar 04, 1984
How Acq: 2008 Draft (6th round, 183rd overall)
Contract: 7/9/2008: Signed a four-year, $1.801 million contract. The deal included a $97,500 signing bonus. 2009: $385,000, 2010: $470,000, 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent
As a late-round selection last year, Spencer Larsen made the Denver roster on the strength of his special-teams play and versatility. His stadium-shaking hit on a kick return in Week 4 was arguably Denver's best tackle of the year and the only positive memory from that horrific game in Kansas City. Later on in the season, Larsen made headlines as a starter on offense (fullback), defense (linebacker) and special teams (kick coverage); he was the first Bronco in team history to do so. In fact, he received the Diet Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for his efforts. A groin injury slowed Larsen down in December, and he did not play in Denver's losses versus thePanthers and Bills.
Although Larsen's versatility means he offers Denver roster flexibility (backup FB and ILB are the same guy), he is (to this point) nothing special as far as fullbacks go. MHR's own Styg50 wrote "Larsen was only adequate as a blocking FB however, and he has mentioned how uncomfortable he would be if he was ever asked to carry the rock," in his review at season's end. Larsen did not carry the ball or catch a pass in 2008 for Denver. However, he needn't worry much; if the past four seasons in New England are any indication, there won't be a lot of touches allocated to the fullback position.
Larsen is entering the second year of his four-year rookie deal which will pay him a salary of $385,000 in 2009. The fact that Spencer fills more than one spot on the depth chart means he would be a very difficult player to cut. Having spent 2003 and 2004 on a Mormon mission in Chile, Larsen entered the NFL at an older age than most, turning 25 this past March.
#42 / Running Back / Denver Broncos
Born: Aug 10, 1986
College: Arizona State
Exp: 2nd Year
How Acq: 2008 Draft (5th round, 139th overall)
Contract: 7/9/2008: Signed four-year, $1.903 million contract. The deal included a $198,000 signing bonus. 2009: $385,000, 2010: $470,000, 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent
Ryan Torain entered the league with some rather unfair expectations. As a running back and a fifth-round choice of the Denver Broncos, Torain was doomed to fail from the very beginning. After all, his draft position and injury-shortened senior year at Arizona State made Ryan the obvious heir apparent to the crown of Late-Round Denver Running Back Comes From Nowhere to Top 1,000 Yards and Turn Every Fantasy Football League Upside Down. The shoes of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary are hard to fill; Torain suffered a freak elbow injury during training camp, and throughout his recovery there were whispers that he would be the starting running back for Denver upon his return.
Granted, the reputations Mike Shanahan and Bobby Turner were bestowed as Running Back Whisperers was not undeserved; they did often turn what other teams deemed chicken you-know-what into chicken salad. But Torain, who has seemingly never been able to stay healthy for more than a couple months, had no chance. His pro debut resulted in a single yard gained on three carries (yes, that's 3 carries, 1 yard) versus Miami. A few nights later, the national stage was to be Torain's; Denver's matchup against the Browns was televised on the NFL Network and the previously-mentioned slew of RB injuries meant it was finally Torain Time. Although Ryan showed an odd and upright running style, it worked for most of the first half, as he racked up 68 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Savvy fantasy-football owners everywhere rejoiced. Torain did not fumble.
But as quickly as Torain Time had arrived, it departed just like that; an awkward tackle near halftime turned out to be a torn ACL in Ryan's left knee. His rookie season was over, after just 15 carries and six quarters of football. In addition to the knee and elbow injuries of 2008, Torain lost much of his senior season to a fractured toe. As a sophomore at Butler Community College in 2004, he missed several games with an ankle sprain. The hope, of course, is that Torain is someday able to find better health (fortune?) and make good on the promise he showed while at ASU (93.8 rushing yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry in 19 games). Those numbers, along with his large measurables, make Torain sound like a smaller version of Brandon Jacobs. However, his aforementioned upright running style mean he's more often receiving than doling out contact.
Torain is entering the second year of his four-year rookie deal which will pay him a salary of $385,000 in 2009. Health is clearly an issue; even if he is able to practice and perform in training camp, Torain may still find himself in competition with Darius Walker for the final RB spot on the roster. But his size, talent, potential, and injury history make Ryan much more likely to be on the 53-man roster, IR or PUP list than on the Broncos' cut list. Torain did participate in individual drills in June minicamps with a brace on his left knee, which is obviously a good sign for his future in Denver. Ryan will turn 23 during the upcoming training camp.
#43 / Running Back / Denver Broncos
Born: Oct 21, 1985
College: Notre Dame
Exp: 2nd Year
How Acq: 2009 Free Agency (Houston)
Contract: 5/7/2009: Signed a two-year contract
Walker entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Gary Kubiak's Texans in 2007. A star for the Fighting Irish, Darius was highly productive despite only seeing action in four games with Houston. He tallied 264 yards and 1 TD on 58 carries, plus 81 yards on 13 receptions for a total of 345 YFS; these are impressive numbers for any back, let alone an undrafted rookie. Walker has not fumbled in the NFL. 2008 was a lost year for Walker, as he spent 5 weeks on the Texans' active roster but saw no action; he otherwise had three practice-squad stints - two with Houston and one with St. Louis.
Despite those encouraging statistics, Walker is apparently not that great at anything in particular. As Scouts, Inc. put it, Walker "is not quite as big as you'd like and not quite as fast as you'd like, but he does have some quality running skills...He adds some value as a situational player who can spell the starter and run routes out of the backfield, but does not have enough physical skills to make you think he has a chance to ever be a starter." It does not appear that Walker has had any notable injury problems.
Walker signed a two-year deal with Denver; terms of the contract were not released. It's safe to assume Walker received a minimal signing bonus (figure less than $100,000) and money will not be a factor in the decision whether to keep him on the roster. If the Broncos' other backs are healthy, it would be a surprise for Walker to make the 53-man roster. Assuming another team does not snatch him up come August, don't be surprised to find him on Denver's practice squad. From my research, it appears that Walker still has practice-squad eligibility; he has only accrued one season (2007) and during that year he dressed for fewer than nine games (6, to be exact). Thanks to broncobear for help with that one. Walker will turn 24 following Denver's Week 6 Monday Night game in San Diego.
The common threads which seem to link Denver's running backs are versatility and sure-handedness; Josh McDaniels clearly prioritizes players who have the ability to run with the football, to get out of the backfield and catch passes, hang onto the football when they've got it, and to stay in and block when more protection is necessary. Expect to see more passes thrown the backs' way, if Josh McDaniels' time in New England is any indication. Look for Moreno to be the starter, with Buckhalter and Hillis seeing a good amount of touches, Larsen filling in at times as fullback, Jordan getting carries in short-yardage and goal-line situations, with Torain's role dependent upon his health, and Walker on the bubble. As for strategy, it is safe to say that Denver will return to a more balanced offense in 2009 than we saw last year; more runs near the goal line and more draws to combat the 3-4 defenses of San Diego and Kansas City. For more on Josh McDaniels and the running game, check out this earlier piece from (Emmett) and myself - Divining the McDaniels Way.