Rebuilding the Broncos: Offseason outlook, Part 3

The Denver Broncos have made no bones about it - obtaining a running back on the open market is Priority 1 at Dove Valley. There’s no shortage of them out there, either; I winnowed this list down from the names that I kept finding. Keep in mind that Denver wants someone who can complement the play of Knowshon Moreno. Moreno has produced over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his two seasons, despite playing behind offensive lines that have frequently been porous at best. Moreno isn’t an every-down, 25-carries-a-game back - his list of injuries, while rarely keeping him out of games, has been a constant drain on his production. Correll Buckhalter has been an excellent investment, and despite his own injury issues, has been a steady producer for Denver, able to find the small holes that the line can create and burst through them more quickly than Knowshon - I think that Buck's vision of the LOS is better: he makes his decisions quickly and doesn’t hesitate or dance in the backfield, which Moreno was more prone to, especially during his freshman year. He’s improved.

LenDale White is a question mark: he has a history of not getting along well with his coaches, and his own college coach (Pete Carroll) threw him out of Seattle before he came to Denver and tore his Achilles' tendon. that’s a tough injury for a RB to return from - he’s going to have some pain as he loosens the post-surgical ankle. Lance Ball was a practice squader who stepped up in the last year and was a project under Josh McDaniels - no word yet on what, if anything, the Broncos will do with him. As John Fox has pointed out, he hasn’t even seen most of these guys practice, much less play together. He’s studied their game film, though, so he’s got a sense of where he needs the team to go.

I left a couple of larger names off the list, including Reggie Bush (who wants to return to NO at a reduced contract) and Ronnie Brown. Brown, from Miami, still has good hands, but his rushing is off and his cost may be high. Fox has said that they wil spend to get the best they can, though. Unless Denver wants to run a wildcat offense at times to maximize Tim Tebow’s versatility, I can’t see them making such a move with more pressing issues immediately at hand. If I left off someone you think is a legitimate option, please add them in the comments. Frankly, if I covered every option, you’d be bored to tears by the list. I took the players who showed up in my own thoughts, and I’d be glad to listen to yours. Here we go:

Running Backs

Joseph Addai (Indianapolis)
Height: 5-11   Weight: 214   Age: 28
Born: 5/3/1983 Houston , TX
College: LSU
Experience: 6th season

As a five-year back for Indy, Addai impressed early on, but seems to have faded somewhat over the seasons. Last year he was only healthy for eight games, starting in seven of them. However, he’s got a history of 1,000-plus yard seasons (2006, 2007) and reached 828 in 2009. He’s dealt with some injuries, and Indy brought in Donald Brown, who many felt was as good a back as Knowshon Moreno. Brown has so far disappointed far more than Moreno: both would benefit from a more talented offensive line, which Bill Polian has promised Indy for this season. There seems to be some question as to whether Indy will ask Addai back - depending on his medical report, he could play well in a zone-blocking system as a second-string RB. I’ve never really been strongly impressed by him, but the numbers are good. He can give you 10 TDs per season, too, which is fairly rare. I’d call him a possible, if Indy doesn’t put up enough money. They are in a tough bind, with all their starting DL in FA and a deep need at OL combined with Peyton Manning’s salary: money could be tight.

Cedric Benson (Cincinnati)
Height: 5-11   Weight: 227   Age: 28
Born: 12/28/1982 Midland , TX
College: Texas
Experience: 7th season

After three tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Benson took his game to Cincinnati and produced well in three more. He’s run hot and cold at times as far as effort goes, and has limited skills as a receiver as well as a reputation, well-earned or not, as a head case. There are enough red flags on him to make a case that you’d only want him if you’ve got a good O-line (which he needs), a full wallet and a willingness to put up with his potential post-contract antics. With all of that said, Benson can produce yardage in the right scheme. He also knows how to punch the ball into the end zone when you’re deep in the red zone, and Denver has needed that for a long time. I doubt they’ll go after him:  I noticed that he was arrested this month for a conflict with a former roommate - he’s free on $10,000 bond. Not a good sign, Cedric.....

Ahmad Bradshaw (NY Giants)
Height: 5-9   Weight: 198   Age: 25
Born: 3/19/1986 Bluefield , VA
College: Marshall
Experience: 5th season

When Bradshaw was shown an opportunity to be a dominant back for the Giants last year, he responded by leaping from 778 yards in 2009 to 1,235 yards plus another 314 receiving, and had a 4.8 yards per carry average. I strongly doubt that the Giants would be foolish enough to let him hit the FA market. If they do, he’s well worth getting into the bidding war that would ensue. Bradshaw can do everything that you want from a back and he’s still young. It’s a pipe dream to obtain him, but it’s fun to imagine.

Arian Foster (Texans)
Height: 6-1   Weight: 227   Age: 24
Born: 8/24/1986 Albuquerque , NM
College: Tennessee
Experience: 3rd season

Sadly, Foster only has two years in with the Texans, who probably need to restructure his contract soon, although Foster says that he’s happy with what he’s making ($480,000, according to Rotoworld). He’s another UDFA who spent a year barely making the team (played in six games, started one) and then led the league in yardage, with 1,616 yards rushing and 604 yards receiving the next year. The Texans have him wrapped up for now - he’s still appeared on several FA listings, so I thought that I’d set things straight. I wish he was available, though - low miles, high production.

Jerome Harrison (Philadelphia)
Height: 5-9   Weight: 205   Age: 28
Born: 2/26/1983 Kalamazoo , MI
College: Washington State
Experience: 6th season

Harrison is a backup who suffered through five seasons in Cleveland before moving to Philadelphia. He’s a rarely used backup there - Denver already has similar players. Nothing there that I can see.

Ahmard Hall (Tennessee)
Height: 5-11   Weight: 241   Age: 31
Born: 11/13/1979 Galveston , TX
College: Texas
Experience: 6th season

Just an aging backup whose career never got off the ground. No reason for Denver to take him.

Tim Hightower (Arizona) 
Height: 6-0   Weight: 222   Age: 25
Born: 5/23/1986 Santa Ana , CA
College: Richmond
Experience: 4th season

Tim Hightower averaged 4.8 yards per carry with 736 yards in 2010 and caught 63 balls the year before. He's a solid third-down back, which Denver’s been trying to find. The Cardinals OL hasn’t been consistently top level, either (currently, they only have six OL players under contract), so he knows how to produce in less-than-optimal situations. I think that he’s worth a long look.

Brandon Jackson (Green Bay)
Height: 5-10   Weight: 216   Age: 25
Born: 10/2/1985 Detroit , MI
College: Nebraska
Experience: 5th season

Jackson was a slow starter in GB, producing few yards in his first few seasons, but showing a knack for getting receptions, pulling in 342 receiving yards on 43 receptions last season while adding 703 yards on the ground. Green Bay would like to keep him around, but he’s got his four years in and may test the waters. It’s always tough to evaluate a guy who’s been lower on the depth chart and dealing with a limited OL, but who breaks out in what may be his contract year. Is he a one-year wonder, or a back who reached his own better level of play? It’s hard to say, but he remains as an option for Denver as a third-down back.

John Kuhn (Green Bay)
Height: 6-0   Weight: 250   Age: 28
Born: 9/9/1982 York , PA
College: Shippensburg
Experience: 6th season

Kuhn is a player who is surprisingly worth a serious look. Stats mean nothing here - Green Bay loved him for his ability to pick up short yardage and to push the ball into the end zone. Denver hasn’t picked up the short yards consistently and within the red zone for way too long. He’s languishing in GB in terms of carries, much like a successful Peyton Hillis in 2008 (although the new jewelry helps a lot) and he might be tempted by the right offer. He blocks well, too, but he has limited receiving skills.

Brian Leonard (Cincinnati)
Height: 6-1   Weight: 225   Age: 27
Born: 2/3/1984 Gouverneur , NY
College: Rutgers
Experience: 5th season

Nothing there for Denver. He’s a tall, upright runner who averages about 50 yards a year. He’s never broken more than 303 yards a season, and that season upped his average considerably. He does have good hands as a receiver, but I doubt that will be enough for Denver.

Derrick Locke, Kentucky
Height: 5-9   Weight: 190   Age: 27
Born: N/A Oklahoma City, OK
College: Kentucky
Experience: Rookie

No, you wont find anything on him in the NFL - he’s 22 years old and a CFA who I’d like to see get time in Denver’s TC. The downside that kept him from being drafted was that he’s 5’9 and 190 lb - he’s not a bruiser. He’s had some injury issues and with his size, is limited in pass protection. His upside, though, is that in two steps he can hit full speed - he’s got truly great burst and acceleration, as well as soft hands that put him among the best receiving backs in this year’s draft and decent route skills, particularly the out route from the backfield. He was a three-year starter in the SEC and has excellent vision. Check out whatever Senior Bowl film you can find -  he’s an excellent option on special teams, is a breakaway threat on every play and can be had for little money.  Along with Blaine Sumner, he’s on my wish list for CBAs.

Jason Snelling (Atlanta)
Height: 5-11   Weight: 223   Age: 27
Born: 12/29/1983 Toms River , NJ
College: Virginia
Experience: 5th season

He had a second-round tender placed on him, but has played his four years and should be a UFA. For the last two years, he’s produced substantially as a receiver, racking up 259 and 303 yards in 2009 and 2010, respectively. He also produced 613 yards rushing in 2009, but only 324 last season, yet snared 44 receptions in 14 games this past season. His role has been to back up Michael Turner in Atlanta. The second-round tender tells me that Atlanta thinks a lot of him, and he may see more carries if he stays with them this coming season. It’s unlikely that Atlanta doesn’t re-sign him, but if they don’t, he’s got the size and versatility that’s worth a long look.

Darren Sproles (San Diego)
Height: 5-6   Weight: 190   Age: 28
Born: 6/20/1983 Waterloo , IA
College: Kansas State
Experience: 7th season

What I love about Sproles is his ability to break every mold about an NFL player. Seriously - 5’6” and 190 lb? He shouldn’t have lasted this long, but he makes brilliant plays around the edges, sneaks through holes that only he can see (and which the bigger defenders can’t see him moving though), and makes the return game an every-time cliffhanger on whether or not he’ll take it to the house. He can’t block well, but has better than decent hands and has received for over 1,000 yards in the past two seasons combined.

In addition to the ‘stick it in your eye’ that would be implied to San Diego by picking him up (a minor reason, to be sure), he fills two serious needs for Denver - a return guy to reduce Eddie Royal’s load (Eddie’s handled it well, but every WR who also is a go-to return guy seems to pay a price in terms of his WR work, where Eddie still can be great) and a scatback who can harass teams with speed around the edges. Denver has needed both. He’s 28 and may not last all that long, but he’s shown no signs of slowing so far. I think that paying him serious money is an investment in winning right away.

Cadillac Williams (Tampa Bay)
Height: 5-11   Weight: 217   Age: 29
Born: 4/21/1982 Gadsden , AL
College: Auburn
Experience: 7th season

Cadillac is clearly starting the downside of his career; as much as he’d like to stay in Tampa, he’s likely to be on the FA market. He’s never produced a high ypc average, but he had 46 receptions last season for 335 yards. With his age, I don’t know how much of a market he’s going to find, but he won’t be left out when the smoke from the FA explosion clears.

DeAngelo Williams (Carolina)
Height: 5-9   Weight: 217   Age: 28
Born: 4/25/1983 Little Rock , AR
College: Memphis
Experience: 6th season

Williams has already been the source of a lot of debate on IAOFM, and he may bring up more. The media has constantly been banging the drum that says John Fox is going to ask for, and probably get, his old player in Williams. Those opposed rightfully point to his history of injuries and probable cost. Those in favor point to his level of production - despite the injuries, he averaged almost 1,000 yards per season until his injury last year. With a career ypc of 5.0, Williams carries some serious power for his size. I don’t have a strong feeling regarding him - he’d be expensive and has some injury baggage, but he’s undeniably talented. His connection to Fox? It remains to be seen.

Conclusion

Running back has been a weakness of Denver’s for years. I’m glad to see Fox paying such close attention to it - even if he does obtain DeAngelo Willams, which I’d prefer he didn’t, he’s looking at key questions like who can be trusted on third down, who can get the short yards, and who can match up to Knowshon to create a solid running game.

I understand the viewpoint that running the ball and stopping the run are no longer the route to winning in the NFL - it’s well documented that passing is king right now and for a long time to come. At the same time - not being able to run the ball leaves you with a one-sided attack, and we’ve seen more than enough of that to know that it’s not the answer either. Balance between the passing and running game would do a lot to move the Broncos up in the standings.

People look at old stats about how often teams under Fox run or pass, but that’s really not a key to what he’s going to do in Denver. He is going to leave a lot of the offense to Mike McCoy, and McCoy is going to use, at least at first, a simplified version of what McDaniels tried to do. The basic approach has a lot going for it - the way it was implemented, with a porous line and little running attack for most of the last two years shows the importance of a successful running game. No matter who the QB is, you still need those factors in place.

As far as defense - you want to make your opponent one-dimensional, and you want to have the people to make them pay when they are. Stopping the run and also putting a good group of pass-rushing, attacking players in the front seven while strengthening the defensive backfield is a good, basic formula to getting the defensive team back on track. Dennis Allen is going all out in trying to put together a group with an aggressive style and a nasty attitude. The defensive backfield has a lot of young talent - many of them players who will need to be on the field, make their rookie and young player mistakes and learn how to be solid NFL starters. The group is changing - Brian Dawkins is talking about coaching: I’d love to see him coaching for the Broncos someday - he has a lot to offer. His attitude is contagious, and it’s hard to change the tone in a locker room that’s been divided or just flat for a long time despite a lot of effort to change that.  Dawk would be a good part of creating that needed change. Richard Smith has done well with LBs in the past, while both Wayne Nunnely at the DL and Ron Milus for the secondary have specialized in training players at their position, and all three have trained Pro Bowl players. The coaching quality, based on past performance, has stepped up a notch.

This is Denver’s chance to fill in the gaps, put together a solid-to-stellar front line (it’s wishful right now, but Von Miller, Robert Ayers or Jeremy Beal, Kevin Vickerson, Barry Cofield or Brandon Mebane and Elvis Dumervil, with Joe Mays or Nate Irving behind them at Mike and D.J. Williams or Wesley Woodyard at Will is a heck of a good start) and teach them the new defensive system. Allen is the team's sixth DC in six years, so he’s got his work cut out for him. Denver really needs quality depth - injuries really killed last year by the time training camp ended, and two-a-days in training camp will soon, thankfully, become a thing of the past. The secondary needs to mature, but the FO has gone to great lengths to put quality candidates in place. It’s what you hope for after a year like last year - better coaching, better players, and a team that now understands that it takes time to put the right people and systems in place. I’ve got a wait-and-see attitude on this - FA will happen quickly, and Denver will have to bid high to get top quality players. They have the money - now they need to act.

Go Broncos!

PS - RIP, Forrest Green, center for the SF teams in the 70s, in an assisted living facility at 65. Give the retired players a seat on the table, guys. Show a little humanity. Equally, my condolences to Robert Kraft on the death of his wife, Myra, a long-time philanthropist. That’s a blow that never fully heals - I wish him all the best. 

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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