Running back roulette

Second-round pick Montee Ball made a lot of fans in Denver happy when he chose Mike Anderson’s old number 38, as an homage to ‘Sarge’. The Broncos are hoping that he can also recreate the kind of tough-nosed performances that made Anderson such a fan favorite during his time in Denver.

As a young man who started off his life as a Broncos fan, he’s already taken the right first steps.

One thing you can count on - any team of John Fox’s will try and use a committee approach to the game. Said OC Adam Gase,

Coach Fox has always been great mixing in the multiple backfields and using different guys. He did it in Carolina. We'll do the same thing here.

Conversations about which running backs will make the roster usually focus on the possibility of Montee Ball and last year’s third-round pick, Ronnie Hillman, becoming the workhorses of the RB rotation. Hillman has reportedly improved his blocking, and he’s looking to play at 15 lb heavier than he did last season. The move to using the inside zone run less (which former OC Mike McCoy called repeatedly later in games) and adding more of the outside zone and stretch zone plays should also make the offense more difficult to predict and add a scheme where Hillman (and Ball) can excel.

The addition of coach Alex Gibbs will provide an additional set of eyes for film work and an elite level of expertise when the Broncos add stretch zone running to their running game.

Willis McGahee was cut yesterday, so a lot of the questions have already been answered. Denver is going younger and healthier. Knowshon Moreno will need to stay healthy to hold onto his place on the team.

The Sport Science series did a piece on Ball that noted his stiff-arm hits with 1,529 lb. of force - nearly 300 lb more than Adrian Peterson’s when it was tested. Montee also did the 10-yard run while dragging 150 lbs faster than any running back, TE, or LB in this year’s testing. His skills are quantifiable as well as highly effective on the field. He’s durable and unusually strong.

Considering the movement toward adding some stretch zone blocking approaches (via Gibbs) to the inside and outside zone play arsenal, those players each make perfect sense. The fact that running backs do get injured also makes a deep roster a rational way to go. It should make training camp interesting. 

Very few fans want to see journeyman Lance Ball return, yet few seem to be talking much about the big man who’s already on the roster. Jacob Hester is listed as the Broncos' sole fullback, but Gase suggested recently that he may be kept as just another RB, which would give Denver a roster opening for tight end Julius Thomas, should he continue his receiving ways with pads on. Hester has the requisite size for the job - he’s a 5-11, 235-lb fifth-year player out of LSU and has played both RB and FB in the past.

While he’s 28, Hester also has extremely low mileage - after drafting him in the third round in 2008, San Diego used him only sparingly and generally on special teams or as a blocker. They had also obtained Mike Tolbert as a RB/FB that same year, and used him over Hester for most of the next four years.

Hester was cut by the Chargers last August in favor of veteran Le'Ron McClain, before being picked up by Denver in late November following the season-ending injury to McGahee. He would get into three games, totaling 81 yards on 17 carries, including 55 yards on seven carries against the Chiefs in the season finale.

Hester blocks well, can carry the ball, and at LSU, his 60 receptions rank seventh all-time among running backs. Peyton Manning might like that. He blocked effectively for Denver in his games late last season, and he’s also a viable option for their needs in short-yardage rushing (Ball could also be that guy - size isn’t everything). Hester has no real competition at fullback right now - the real question is whether Denver will keep a fullback at all.

Depending on how the Denver coaches see him, his size, blocking abilities in both run and pass protection, and his receiving skills combine to fill a hole on the Broncos. He’s another of those versatile ‘tweeners I’ve been mentioning:

Head coach John Fox described the 5-foot-11, 238-pound Hester as a "tweener." That term is often used as a reason why some draft prospects drop in value, but in the case of Hester, Fox clearly meant it as a compliment and a salute to his versatility.

"He's smart, he knows protections, he's got good hands, so he's been a tremendous addition for us," Fox said.

Ball, Hillman, Moreno, and Hester as the RB group is probably the strongest possibility; it would probably be the most diverse group Denver can field. Peyton Manning has played without a fullback for most of his career, but Denver has scripted plays for one. Using Hester this way could make both approaches happy. That would also provide every size RB I could ask for.

Fox has traditionally preferred to keep a FB on the roster. If that hasn’t changed, Hester has a clear path to fulfilling that as a ‘tweener role for the team; whether they use the FB designation is immaterial. Having running back options from 200 to 235 lb with different preferred lanes and abilities would be yet another bonus for the coming season.

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