Scouting the Broncos: Running Backs

With the ‘primary back’ system that Josh McDaniels preferred being (thankfully) lost in the transition to John Fox’s more committee-oriented approach, one question that is beginning to arise is what back or backs Denver will add to pair with Knowshon Moreno. Hopefully, moving to more of a group strategy will help reduce the injury bug that has seemed to slow Moreno, although he misses few games and has shown that he is willing to play when hurt. With that in mind, I spent a while going over the running backs and fullbacks that are currently on the Broncos. What I found at times surprised me. One player was even masquerading as a running back when he was a linebacker - and potentially a good one.

If my experience was any gauge, many of us are probably unaware of the number and histories of the eight running backs that Denver has accumulated in preparation for the potential of a brief (if any) free agency and a hurried training camp. Denver has obtained the services of running backs who generally fit the approach often taken by HC John Fox, although it's worth mentioning that all of the unfamiliar names were acquired before Fox's hiring. They’re generally a bit bigger than average, and look, just from the numbers and draft profiles, like a group that can handle a lot of pounding over the course of the year. Interestingly, Knowshon is the lightest of the bunch, if only by four pounds.

Veterans

Let's examine each of the running backs currently on Denver's roster, several of whom I quite frankly knew little or nothing about before I began this exercise. I've listed them alphabetically, with contract info included where available:

1. Lance Ball RB 5’9” 220 lb, out of Maryland.  2011: $405,000, 2012: Exclusive Rights Free Agent. Ball ran well last year, mostly in cleanup work for Knowshon Moreno. Josh McDaniels considered getting rid of him more than once, or so he said, but he kept seeing something in him that was worth developing. We’ll see if John Fox sees the same vibe. He’s still a little raw, but seemed to be improving later in the season. He looked like he may need playing time to really get his rhythm.

2. Correll Buckhalter RB 6'0” 223 lb, out of Nebraska. 2011: $1.92 million, 2012: $2.02 million, 2013: Free Agent. ‘Buck’ has been the most consistently effective runner on the Broncos when he’s healthy - unfortunately, injuries are an issue, and he’s 32 years old. Denver needs to get another back ready to take his place. He’s particularly effective in a zone blocking system – he’s got a very quick burst through the line, excellent vision and likes the one-cut system. He’s also bigger than Moreno, who relies more upon hitting with speed and didn’t do as well in the one-cut system when he began with the Broncos.

3. Jeremiah Johnson RB 5’9” 218 lb, out of Oregon. 2011: reserve/future contract. Right now he’s camp fodder or practice squad material. You can find a detailed analysis via CBS Sports. Johnson has little experience blocking and is somewhat small, although he’s continued to put on muscle weight and is now about where Lance Ball is. He can be an effective receiver, but needs more experience. He runs hard, though, is tough to tackle and has good vision and quickness. His downside is said to be that he has some habits to change after playing in a spread-heavy offense in school. The Broncos added Johnson to their practice squad in December and could have his chance this next training camp. Before a couple of injuries in 2007, he was considered one of the up and coming backs, so he may catch on yet. He played in every game en route to 2008 second-team All-Pac 10 honors, gaining 1,201 rushing yards, scoring 13 touchdowns and averaging an outstanding 7.1 yards per carry. Can he make the leap to the NFL in 2011?

4. Spencer Larsen FB 6’2” 243 lb, out of Arizona. 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent. Larsen quickly became a fan favorite in 2008 as a rookie with his enthusiasm and fierce play, including two of the best special teams tackles that I’ve ever seen. He has struggled with injuries, but remains one of the very few players in the modern era to start on offense, defense and special teams in a single game. When not injured, he likes the contact of playing fullback and has blocked well. He’s also caught a few passes and took a few quick handoffs in 2010 – he runs somewhat erect at times, but he hits like a hammer. That approach has led to injuries, and he will have to learn a different technique to last. There are two other fullbacks - Eckel and McLaughlin - who could battle with him for minutes in the upcoming season, best man wins.

5. Mike McLaughlin FB (or ILB?) 6’0” 245 lb, out of Boston College. 2011: reserve/future contract. I thought at first that MM’s listing as a RB was a typo on the part of  Denver’s roster page - he was actually a middle linebacker and a longsnapper in college. As far as his MLB status, CBS described him as ‘A classic glass-eating Boston College inside linebacker’. Works for me....I’d suggest reading that part about him here. He may be interesting come training camp, because Mike is currently a fullback, much as Spenser Larsen made that same transition: many of the physical techniques are said to be similar. McLaughlin had some positive experience as a longsnapper while at Boston College, and he showed well at Combine where he was grilled extensively about his skills as a snapper and little about linebacker. Although he had a torn Achilles' tendon in 2008 and had to miss the first three games of 2009 while in college, he played increasingly well that year, and he had hoped for a good Combine followed by being picked up as a special teams player and a linebacker. Life changed;  he fell to CFA status and the Ravens turned him into a fullback to back up LaRon McClain. McLaughlin may get his chance to play if Larsen falters or struggles with injuries again.

6. Brandon Minor RB 6’0” 214 lb, out of Michigan. 2011: reserve/future contract. Briefly: “In his four years in Ann Arbor (he did not take a redshirt), Minor averaged five yards a carry and 20 rushing touchdowns on only 331 carries. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as a junior with those 533 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.” He also suffered a torn left rotator cuff in November of 2009 and missed the end of that season. Minor has struggled to catch on in the NFL, spending time with the Colts organization and taking a tryout with Green Bay last November that didn’t lead to a position.

7. Knowshon Moreno RB 5’11” 210 lb, out of Georgia. 2011: $1 million, 2012: $855,000, 2013: $1.7 million, 2014: Club Option, 2015: Free Agent. We all know Knowshon, his strengths and weaknesses - I think that there’s no need to go further. I’d expect him to be in the primary mix as long as he’s healthy. Even though he frequently seems to have dings that make the injury list, he rarely misses games. When the offensive line began to gel last season, Moreno quickly became much more effective, accounting for 682 yards from scrimmage over a five-game stretch before a rib injury slowed him down.

8. LenDale White RB 6’1” 235 lb. 2011: $640,000, 2012: Free Agent. This may be LenDale’s last resort, or his best option for a home during his last year(s) of football. The alum of South High School in Denver has dealt with weight issues, attitude problems and coaching conflicts as a pro, but White knows that his days are becoming numbered. When he’s ‘on’, he’s a highly productive back who can get you the final yard and punch the ball over the line, whether it’s 4th down or 1st and goal.

White has had a short but rocky career: He was drafted by Tennessee in the second round (pick 45) of the 2006 Draft. In 2007 he carried the ball 303 times for 1,110 yards and added 20 receptions, giving him a total of 1,224 yards for the year. The following year, LenDale became the proverbial thunder to Chris Johnson's lightning, punching in 15 rushing touchdowns on just 200 carries. But Johnson was given the bulk of the carries in 2009, and White felt like an afterthought on the team. There were some ill feelings, but in the end, then-Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, "As far as LenDale falling out of favor, he practiced. He was prepared to play. I think I can't blame him for wanting to play more. That's the kind of players you want on your roster. Considering the circumstances, he handled things. There were issues I don't need to bring up. I thought he handled things reasonably well."

Last April, White was part of a draft day trade from the Titans to Seattle, where he was reunited with Pete Carroll, his coach at Southern Cal. But his stay with the Seahawks would be shortlived, as a drug-test failure resulted in his release just a month later. Ironically, the other half of Seattle's trade haul was none other than Kevin Vickerson, the defensive tackle Denver re-signed just two weeks ago. LenDale came home to Denver last August to fill the Broncos' need for a big back, but he had the misfortune to tear his Achilles' tendon in Denver's final preseason game and spent 2010 on IR. It’s a tough injury to come back from (as WR Demaryius Thomas will also attempt), and I wish him the best. In yet another notable point, White is the cousin of former Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups.

Draft Outlook

Denver may take a running back in the later rounds if one catches their eye - it’s a deep draft for that position, so that may be easier than in other years. As you can tell - if they don’t, it’s not like they have a shortage of RBs and FBs to choose from. With this kind of selection, you have to hope that somewhere in here is a second and/or third back to fit into Fox’s small committee (2-3 players plus reserves) approach to the running game. Given Larsen’s history of injuries, he may have to fight off competition for fullback in the next camp - only time will tell.

BTW, I totally whiffed last week on Florida safety Ahmad Black, whose lowly Combine performance caught me completely off guard. The story was that he’d been timed in the low 4.5’s in college, but you surely couldn’t prove it that day. Hopefully, this guy will do better (certainly his Combine was far better): The guy in question is currently a sleeper RB pick: Nebraska’s RB Roy Helu. He stands 6’0” and weighs in at 219. He’s also a seriously tough RB.

Helu managed to average 6.62 YPA in Nebraska’s run-first offense, and he could easily be a day-two pick - day one isn’t out of reach for him, depending on how many teams need a starter at RB. He ran a very respectable 4.42-second forty (which was sixth among running backs), and he also posted the best 20-yard shuttle time (4.01), fastest 60-yard shuttle (11.07), and second-best three-cone drill (6.67) at the Combine. That last number catches my eye the most, because it’s a RB-specific metric: it shows that he can change direction with speed and balance. Helu has a solid pass-catching background as well, with 54 career receptions. No one has ever proved that it really matters in receiving, but Helu has 10 1/4" hands, which are the biggest among RBs (great for stiff-arming, though). He also performed a  36.5" vertical leap and a 9'11" broad jump, suggesting that he’s got a ton of explosive power. It’s something to think about. If he’s there later in the draft, Denver should roll the dice on this one - you can catch a great homer’s view of the player over at Husker Extra. My only regret is that he’s not likely to stay a sleeper for long.

Go Broncos!

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

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