Yesterday I took a look at some of the top free agent defensive tackles that the Denver Broncos could look at, and now I'm going to go through the running backs and see which players could be headed to the Mile High City for 2011 and beyond.
I was quite shocked that the Broncos didn't draft a running back in April, given that there were so many draftable guys. You have to figure that the Broncos will be looking hard at the undrafted free agents for guys that fell through the cracks, perhaps a Graig Cooper of Miami, Derrick Locke of Kentucky, Mario Fannin of Auburn, or Wisconsin's John Clay.
There have been rumors connecting some of those players to the Broncos, but it's almost a foregone conclusion that the Broncos will add a veteran back via free agency, and probably a pretty prominent name. The Broncos already have a young guy in Knowshon Moreno who has shown flashes, but he definitely needs someone to help him carry the load. Moreno is probably one of the better third down backs in the league, but he has yet to prove he can be a featured back in the NFL.
LenDale White is coming off of a serious Achilles injury, but he showed in last year's pre-season that he still has some skill, and he lost a ton of weight leading up to that point, and was in pretty good shape. We will see at training camp whether or not he has maintained that shape with the injury and lockout combination.
Lance Ball runs hard, but he might not be a long-term solution. Correll Buckhalter made some big plays down the stretch last year, but he had a pretty miserable season overall. The Broncos also brought in some young bodies in Jeremiah Johnson and Brandon Minor.
With the team moving to a more run-oriented offense, it's going to be important to add another back capable of carrying a full load to complement Knowshon Moreno this offseason. Here are the most likely options.
DeAngelo Williams, Age 28
Williams has been an elite running back for two years of his career since joining the Carolina Panthers, but he has missed 13 games the last two years due to injury, something I am not overly comfortable with. Still, when healthy, this guy is one of the best in the league, and it would be an exciting addition to the Broncos' backfield, but can they pry him away from Carolina?
The Arkansas native has been connected to the Miami Dolphins, and it makes a little bit of sense that the Dolphins would pursue him because both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are free agents, and there's been no indication that they are going to bring either one back. If the Dolphins are willing to shell out the cash, playing in a warm weather city and taking his talents to South Beach might be a good career move.
The Panthers have to still have a shot at Williams, but if I were him, I wouldn't go back there. They were the worst team in the NFL last year, and the cupboard is pretty bare. Williams also would have to work pretty flipping hard to earn carries with the emergence of Mike Goodson in his absence, and Jonathan Stewart still around.
I think the Broncos might be the only team willing to shell out the cash for a running back who just turned 28 and has finished the last two seasons on injured reserve. His familiarity with John Fox and Mike McCoy is huge, and the Broncos have the cap space to make this happen. I think Williams in a Broncos uniform is not just a possibility, it's a probability.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Age 25
There are so many things that concern me about Bradshaw, that I don't know the Broncos would be willing to break the bank to bring him in. He had six lost fumbles last year despite rushing for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns. He also has an injury concern, but he's a very good receiver out of the backfield. Bradshaw seems more like a 12-18 carry per game back than a guy you want taking 20-25 carries.
Still, he is an option, and he has to be considered. I'm sure the Broncos have done plenty of film work on him, so they will know more than me on this subject. Bradshaw would probably like to stay in New York to play with the Giants, and he might take a discount to do so.
Michael Bush, Age 27
I think Bush would definitely leave the Raiders if he becomes a free agent, which it looks like he will. He was underdrafted because of his leg injury his final year at Louisville, and the Raiders really cashed in. They had one of the best running games in the NFL last year, and Bush was a key part of it. Broncos fans know that pretty well, but we don't have to discuss that today.
Bush is from Louisville, Kentucky, and probably doesn't really have a preference for where he would like to play in the NFL at this point, so Denver could really be an option if he's offered the opportunity to be the featured back. I think the Broncos could pursue him along with some other wild-card teams, including the Raiders. In the end, though, I think that Bush will wind up in Oakland or with another team that has an even more dire RB situation.
Darren Sproles, Age 28
Just sign him to keep him from playing against us, please.
Tim Hightower, Age 25
The Cardinals drafted Ryan Williams out of Virginia Tech in the second round, so they clearly don't have interest in bringing Hightower back. After watching what he did to the Broncos last year, I certainly wouldn't mind bringing him in. Will Hightower demand a large contract? I don't really think so, but you never know. I actually think Hightower could be one of the more reasonably priced young running backs on the market, and if the Broncos can't bring in a guy like DeAngelo Williams or Michael Bush, I would think this guy could be plan "B" or "C".
Hightower is from Santa Ana, California, and unless he wants to go to a crowded backfield, I don't see any team in the Golden State that would be able to entice him enough to come in. My biggest fear here is that Hightower's style is too similar to that of Knowshon Moreno's, but he has experience playing behind a terrible offensive line and he was productive on all three downs.
Ronnie Brown, Age 29
I would consider bringing in Ronnie Brown only in a reserve role. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards only once in his career, and he is again a lot like Knowshon Moreno. He's so good on third down that it somewhat masks his inefficiency as a featured back, but Ronnie runs hard and could be a nice addition at a reduced price.
Carnell Williams, Age 29
The Cadillac has been nothing like he was his rookie season, but he's regained some durability and played in all 16 games the past two seasons. He could be worth a look, and I'm sure coach Fox is familiar with him having played against him with Carolina for the last six years. In fact, last year he had 113 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers, his best numbers against any single team.
Jerome Harrison, Age 28
Harrison was one of the best backs in the league at the end of the 2009 season, but he completely fell off the map. He only started three games last season after being traded to the Eagles, and he could be a nice veteran pickup on the cheap-heap this offseason. He doesn't have a ton of tread on the tires, and he might be able to really contribute.
Ricky Williams, Age 34
I've always loved Ricky Williams and the way he plays, so I would not be opposed to bringing him to Denver. In fact, I would absolutely love to see him in orange and blue. Williams is one of my favorite players dating back to when I was a little kid, so I advocate bringing him out. He hasn't missed a game over the last three years, and he's in great shape, probably as good or better shape than many of the guys on this list despite his age. He ran for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns two years ago, and averaged over four yards per carry in 2010 behind a poor offensive line on a team with a predictable offense. He's also a solid receiver out of the backfield.
Jerious Norwood, Age 27 (28 later in July)
Norwood was a guy who was probably scouted by Brian Xanders dating back to his days with the Atlanta Falcons, and this guy used to be pretty flipping good when he could stay healthy. He's only played one full season in his NFL career, so he might just be a guy you bring into camp similar to what we did with Correll Buckhalter in 2009.
Tiki Barber, Age 36
Whether you like it or not, Tiki Barber had two thousand yard seasons with Eric Studesville as his running backs coach, and he has some familiarity with our new head coach John Fox as well. He might be coming out of retirement from two years ago, but he has connections in Denver too big to ignore.
I think I'd be willing to place money on a bet that DeAngelo Williams will be a part of the Denver Broncos before all is said and done, but you never want to be that sure about anything, so I'm just going to say I'm confident that it could happen. The stars are aligned, so to speak, for Williams to make the trek to Denver and be our featured back. We have the cap space, we have the need, and we have the coach who drafted him.
If we don't acquire Williams, I think we will look to the next best guy on the market, probably Michael Bush or Ahmad Bradshaw. I don't see Bradshaw as a workhorse in a run first offense, so I would lean toward Bush as the more likely "Plan B" option.
If the Broncos don't land Williams or Bush, I think you will see them pursue a stable of backs. Perhaps some veterans who didn't pan out like Ronnie Brown or Cadillac Williams, or maybe sign a guy like Tim Hightower and bring on another zone runner to go along with him.
Another option that really intrigues me is bringing on Fred Jackson, a guy who really flourished in 2009 with Eric Studesville as his running backs coach. Jackson would probably have to be obtained via trade, and the Bills may have an interest in one of our quarterbacks or wide receivers, or possibly a mid-round draft pick. Jackson hasn't missed a game in three years, but he is 30 years old. Still, he's a guy who can make plays in multiple different ways for a team, whether it's carrying the load as the full-time back, catching passes out of the backfield, or returning kicks. He's a valuable player and the Bills might want to move on with C.J. Spiller and Johnny White, two backs they have used high draft picks on. In May, 2009 Jackson was signed to a four-year contract extension with the Bills, so there could be some financial restrictions there in any trade, and they might not even be interested in dealing him at all, but it's an interesting option given his connection with Studesville.
Also look out for Willis McGahee's name if he should hit the open market, which has been rumored. McGahee also enjoyed two thousand yard seasons with coach Studesville as his running backs coach, so he has some connection. If the Broncos want McGahee, though, they will have to wait until he and his massive contract are let go by the Ravens. If and/or when that happens, expect them to have interest. McGahee is a good back with a nose for the end zone, but he had probably one of his worse years last season. He could bounce back in Denver on a shorter contract, maybe a two or three year deal.
My ideal scenario would be for the Broncos to sign DeAngelo Williams right away and then scoop up Willis McGahee if and when he is cut from the Ravens. That would give them a featured back and a legitimate power back to go along with Knowshon Moreno. I would then look to keep LenDale white and add a speed back via the undrafted free agent route, someone like Derrick Locke would make a ton of sense. Thus, my ideal Broncos RB depth chart would look like this when training camp gets going:
1. DeAngelo Williams
2. Knowshon Moreno
3. Willis McGahee
4. LenDale White
5. Derrick Locke/UDFA
What are your thoughts?