Much attention has been focused on the QB position during Denver's off-season. If not the QB position, many folks are inclined to study the many changes made at the defensive line. However, Denver's biggest surprise may come at the RB position. Why? There is more beef on the offensive line, a former first round RB entering his first year as a veteran, and a QB more capable of distracting teams with the passing game after a year's experience in the Denver system. If the Denver run game can make a mark on the League this year, everything else can fall more easily into place.
I expect Denver will use a committee approach to the RB position, using two backs to carry the ball (with one of those backs getting the majority of carries) in each game. I also expect Denver to use single back sets for virtually all of their offensive formations. Further, Denver will expect their backs to play in some screen plays. In such a scenario, those backs will need to be capable of catching the ball or blocking for whomever takes the pass. However, I expect the majority of screen passes to go to receivers, not to backs and TEs.
Further, the transition away from the zone block system is completed this year. This is not to say that there won't be occasional zone blocks (every team uses them). But the zone block will not be dominant as in years past, or even divided as it was in 2009. There are no true 1-cut specialists on the roster this year. In the past, with the help of the OL and RB coaches, Denver could pick-up specialists from deep in the draft and ensure a quality runner. Now the team will have success, but along very different lines. On the OL, "beef" is the theme for the interior OL, and the Tackles will depend on their excellent pass blocking skills in a system that should see a final departure from the bootleg driven west coast offense of years past.
But the transition at RB is complete, and the coach has the player types he wants throughout the RB roster.
Let's take a look at each Denver running back, and see how he plugs into the Denver system and where he may end up on the depth chart.
Denver Broncos #27 - Running Back
Born: 1987/07/16 Age: 22
Height: 5-11 Weight: 210
P.O.B. Belford, NJ
Drafted by: the Denver Broncos in 2009 (1st round)
Moreno is likely to be the primary back in a RB by committee approach. He was taken 12th in the draft last year, and in his first year with the team showed raw talent with mixed results. Given what we've seen from Knowshon, this could be his breakout year.
First, let's credit Knowshon with the simple task of holding onto the ball; he only fumbled the ball four times in 2009. And while he didn't go over 100 yards in any game, he was splitting many carries. His average was a good, but not great, 3.8 yards per carry.
Knowshon is a shifty runner. He isn't going to be the fastest runner on the field, but his footwork is good and his acceleration is very good. Knowshon has a lot of agility, which often doesn't convert into yards in a rookie season, but comes into play with experience. This agility makes Knowshon a prime candidate for the screen game.
Denver used Knowshon rarely in screens or other passes (about twice per game) in 2009, with the exception of the won NE game, where Knowshon caught four passes for an average of 9 yards per (including a nice 27 yard reception). However, in the last four games (all losers), Knowshon picked up his receptions, gaining three receptions in each game.
Knowshon's agility and bursts of speed are more valuable in the inside game, and that's where Denver needs him as a distraction to compliment the frequent passes to the sides of the field. Knowshon will need to improve on his ability to shed at least one tackle on each touch of the ball in order to make the running game formidable.
What this young player does in his second year will go far in determining if Denver made a good call with his draft pick in 2009.
Denver Broncos #28 Running Back
Born: 1978/10/06 Age: 31
Height: 6-0 Weight: 223
P.O.B. Collins, MS
Drafted by: the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 (4th round)
Correll came to the Broncos after several years with the Eagles. He is an older RB, but solid (outperforming rookie Knowshon Moreno throughout the 2009 season). He is not only adept in the running game, but a threat in the passing game as well. His skills buy time for Knowshon to develop further.
Correll is a stud #2 RB for the running back duo in Denver. In 2009 he averaged a very impressive 5.4 YPC with only 3 fumbles. He also had 31 receptions. He will be 32 years old this season.
Correll can relieve Knowshon without the team missing a beat. It seems that Correll is at his best when he touches the ball only a few times per game. For example, when he touched the ball 20 times in a winning effort against the Giants, he only averaged 2.6 YPC. But against Cleveland, KC, and Philly he had averages of 8.4, 9.5, and 8.4 with carries of 9, 12, and 5 touches.
In the 14 games he played in, Correll caught 31 passes.
To be an effective back for Denver, Correll only needs to present a credible threat when Knowshon is off the field. So far, Correll has kept up his end of the bargain. Teams must account for Correll running the ball as well as receiving, and the double threat makes defenses guess wrong much of the time. Defenses must either account for the center of the field (Correll's run threat) or the edges (where Correll or any of the receivers can lurk).
Denver Broncos #26 Running Back
Born: 1983/01/23 Age: 27
Height: 5-9 Weight: 212
P.O.B. Rocky Mount, NC
Drafted by: the Arizona Cardinals in 2005 (2nd round)
Arrington is a RB who specializes as a kick returner or receiving RB. As a pro, he was considered a #2 or #3 RB for the Cardinals, and failed his initial physical when trying to move to the Broncos. Denver sees something in him, and invited him to try again this year. If he can stay healthy, Arrington can be threat to any team and on third down in particular.
J.J. had no numbers for 2009. In his last year of play ('08), J.J. had an excellent YPC of 6.0, and a receiving average of 8.8 over 29 receptions.
Arrington is a balanced threat up the middle, as well as to the outside on sceens. His health is the major factor to consider. Like Buckhalter, I'd like to see Arrington used sparingly. I would expect Arrington to compete with Buckhalter for the #2 spot, but to be used in a #3 spot at the end of the position battle. He may be brought in as a 3rd down specialist, and I wouldn't be shocked to see him get looks for returns (or at back-up for returns at the very least).
(photo courtesy of NFL.Fanhouse.Com)
Denver Broncos #35 Running Back
Born: 1985/06/19 Age: 25
Height: 5-9 Weight: 220
P.O.B. Teaneck, N.J.
In 2008, Lance went to the Rams as an UFA. After a quick release, he went to the Colts. There, he was promoted off the practice squad and played. The Colts liked what they saw, and re-signed him. However, the Titans managed to grab him for their own practice squad before his current acquisition by the Broncos.
In his brief appearance with the Colts, he managed a 6.4 YPC (including a 23 yard run) in 13 carries. He had 1 fumble, and 1 catch for 5 yards.
I project that Lance will make the cut. He will be behind two savvy veterans and a second year player that was a first round pick, so his playing time will likely be limited, if existent at all. Unlike previous years (where Denver RBs come out of nowhere), this prospect is on the roster to be a back-up.
Considered a player that can play as a FB or a LB, Spencer has value to a team that values flexibility. Denver doesn't run a true FB position, so Spencer's run block skills could be better used at TE. However, Denver's TEs are more likely to fill roles as pass blockers than as run blockers or even receivers. In a pinch, Larsen could be a RB / RB-receiver, but his value to the team is probably more on the defensive side of the ball.
I expect Larsen to back-up the RILB position, and to stay away from the offensive side of the ball. He is only listed here because he could play at RB in an extreme emergency (multiple injuries to RBs in a single game).
Perhaps the greatest RB in NC football history, he has a following at Milehighreport .com amongst fans with respect for his tenacity. I'm afraid his injury history may relegate him to the practice squad or away from the team.
From DenverBroncos.com -
Hall, who entered the NFL with Buffalo as a college free agent in 2008, is a second-year player who spent the majority of his two seasons on the Bills' practice squad working under then running backs coach and current Broncos running backs coach . He was signed to the Bills' active roster and dressed but did not play in Buffalo's 2008 season finale against New England.
Hall played both running back and quarterback in college at the University of Mississippi after spending time at Northeast Community College, Troy University and Wake Forest.
If I had to pick a dark horse prospect to crack the top four, it would be Hall. Apparently, Coach Studesville sees something in Hall from practice squad training.
Like Arrington, Smith is a 3rd down specialist if looked at in the Broncos context. However, I think that Arrington is a lock for the position. With Ball and Hall gunning for the #4 spot as well rounded back-ups, I don't think Smith makes the team.
Moreno is the future of the franchise if he takes the next step from rookie to second year player. His focus this year will be on short yardage situations. Buckhalter is a solid #2 in a run by committee approach. I project Arrington as the 3rd down specialist, and Lance Ball as the #4 (in a true back-up role).
The competition to watch is between Lance Ball (experience, good but brief numbers) against Bruce Hall (ties to current RB's coach, desired by several teams for practice squad status). Secondarily, the next competition to watch is between Arrington and Smith. Smith is not going into camp to compete against every RB, but instead to unseat Arrington for the 3rd down specialist spot. In this competition, I give the edge to Arrington because of career numbers and receiving hands.
Going into the season, the running backs corp can range from ordinary to outstanding, based on the following four variables (in order)...
1) Will Moreno take the next step in his development?
2) Will the new players on the interior line prove to have the right stuff against experienced DLs?
3) Will the passing game be strong enough to keep defenses from focusing on the running game?
4) Will the OTs be healthy in time to perform their roles for the team?
Watch the competition in camp, and (without watching for wins and losses) watch for individual performances from the RBs for answers.