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Breaking Down The Roster -- Part 7 -- Running Back

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Today kicks off the "2nd Half" of my roster breakdowns, a milestone of sorts for me as there is now a light at the end of the tunnel.  This has been an exciting exercise for me and I appreciate everyone taking the time to read and comment on my thoughts.  Please remember to take these for what they are worth, an aid to help pass the time as we head towards Training Camp, and my simple opinion.  Think of it as the alcohol-laced banter you would have at your favorite drinking hole with your friends about the Broncos, a little of this, a little of that, and a bunch of laughter.

Today brings us to the Running Back position, and like Quarterback, the Running Back position in Denver has a hallowed aura to it.  Terrell Davis is still very fresh in the minds of Broncos fans, and his impact to the organization and fans are surely going to be on the minds of everyone with the #30 making it's way onto the Broncos sideline.  Let me say, while I respect Mike Bell and the opinion of those who feel "ok" about Bell claiming TD's old number, I, for one, HATE IT.  TD, whether he makes the Hall of Fame or not, was one of the greatest Broncos ever.  It's just too soon.

Ok, off my soap box.  The Broncos, who have "enjoyed" a multiple back system for the past couple of years, went out and got their guy, signing Travis Henry away from the Tennessee Titans to be the next in a long line of 1000-yard rushers for Mike Shanahan's offense.  While 1000 yards is ok I have much bigger expectations for Henry and the rest of the Broncos running game.  Let's take a look.

Full Back

  Kyle Johnson(6-0, 242) --

Johnson has been the starting Full Back in Denver since Reuben Droughns was moved to tailback in 2004.  For Johnson, it hasn't been his performance on the field that has hampered him, just his inability to stay on it, with various injuries limiting him from truly laying claim to the position full-time.  As you will see when I break down the rest of the Full-Backs, the Broncos have brought in reinforcements in case Johnson cannot stay healthy or consistent.   2006 was a perfect example of this with Johnson only starting 7 games while battling ankle and leg injuries.  The ankle is the biggest problem since Johnson injured it back while still with Syracuse in 2000.  Durability has been and always will be the huge question mark with Johnson, but if he is healthy he figures to be the starter.  Unlike in past years, however, the Broncos have a stable of adequate players to fill in should Johnson once again be physically able to hold up.  Even so, Johnson doesn't do anything particularly well and the Broncos could do themselves better than K.J. as a blocking back.  Johnson could run the full spectrum this Training Camp, from starter to possibly out of work.

  Troy Fleming(6-0, 245) --

Add Fleming to a seemingly long list of players on the Broncos roster that have been out of football at some time the past 3 or 4 years.  Fleming (6-foot-0, 245 pounds) is a third-year fullback who spent the 2006 regular season out of football after Tennessee waived him Sept. 2.  Fleming, who was selected by the Titans in the sixth round (191st overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft, played 29 career games (2 starts) in two years with Tennessee. He has totaled seven rushes for 40 yards (5.7 avg.) and 29 receptions for 233 yards (8.0 avg.) with three touchdowns while returning 19 kickoffs for 325 yards (17.1 avg.).  Fleming started 26 of 46 games played at the University of Tennessee.

  Thump Belton(6-0, 232) --

Has anyone in Broncos' history created such a buzz in a shorter time?  Thump Belton has quickly become a cult hero for the Broncos and an underground movement pining to see him not only make the team, but to start as well.  If you haven't heard, the Free Thump Belton movement has been gaining momentum since it's humble beginnings within the Denver Broncos.com Message Boards in March.  For the simple reason that some fans feel "Thump" is the perfect name for a fullback, coupled with our love of the underdog, fans are joining forces to try and keep the 3rd year player on the roster.  Like Fleming, Belton was out of football after being released by the Chicago Bears last September.  Like Kyle Johnson, Belton attended Syracuse where he totaled 327 yards on 61 carries.  Before the Broncos, Belton spent time on the Practice Squads of the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.  Whether or not we can "Free Thump" remains to be seen, but these are the stories that make us feel all warm and fuzzy and if pining for Thump helps the off-season go by faster I am all for it.

  Paul Smith (5-11, 237) --

Smith is considered a FB, though his specialty will be focused on the special teams side.  Over a 7-year career, Smith has seen action at fullback for San Francisco, Detroit and St. Louis, including starting 3 games for the rams last season.  Like Kyle Johnson, Smith has had some injury concerns in the past, missing most of two different season with various injuries.  Though Smith can fill in for Johnson in a pinch he is being brought in to make an impact on the Special Teams, and improve the results for what I consider the worst unit in football.  Prior to being drafted in the 5th Round by San Francisco in the 2000 Draft, Smith started 22 of 43 games at the University of Texas-El Paso where he rushed 603 times for 2,539 yards which ranks fourth in school annals. He was chosen as a first-team all-Western Athletic Conference as a senior when he gained 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns on 272 carries. He rushed for 660 yards on 149 carries with a pair of scores as a junior. Smith compiled 115 carries for 432 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.

Half-Back

  Travis Henry (5-9, 215) --

In an off-season filled with acquisitions the addition of Henry to the Broncos backfield might be the biggest of all.  Henry, whenever given the opportunity, has produced at the NFL level, and has done so playing for some rather bad teams in the process.  In every situation Henry has overcome questions about his size, his speed, his durability, while seemingly in constant competition for his job.  In Buffalo, Henry was supplanted by Willis McGahee.  In Tennessee, Chris Brown and LenDale White were on the roster.  Even so, Henry was able to the Titans in rushing(1211 yds) while only seeing action in 14 games.  While in Buffalo, Henry twice eclipsed the 1350 yard mark.  If you give Henry the rock, he'll produce.   There are some concerns about Henry, however, who is a card carrying member of the NFL's Substance Abuse Program.  One more strike and Henry would miss an entire season, though his "rotation" ends during Week three of the 2007 season.  It does seem Henry is on the path to be straight and narrow, until we get to zero barrier I will always look at the newspaper with nervous tension.  There is little doubt, however, that as long as he is on the field Henry will be "the man" for the Broncos, something the team has been lacking that past few seasons.  It has hurt the Broncos and while the numbers appear to be ok the Broncos dominance as a run team definitely took a hit.  That should all change this season and I predict Henry is going to have a great season, helping the Broncos get back to the business of being a Top-5 rushing team in the NFL.

  Mike Bell(6-0, 215) --

I like Mike Bell.  I'll just start it there because I want people to know that.  After that it goes a bit down hill.  You can't help but root for guys like Bell, who grew up as a Bronco fan, wearing his Terrell Davis jersey until it fell apart.  And yes, I know Bell called TD and asked his "permission" to wear the #30 when Bell gave up his #20 for Travis Henry.  None of that matters to me, and I feel a bit taken back by Bell bringing out the #30.  I don't like the idea and I have made my feelings on the matter clear.  Just because a number isn't officially "retired" doesn't mean you should wear it.  Davis had a huge impact on the team, city, fans, everyone.  He is one of only 5 guys to rush for over 2000 yards in a season,  His legendary effort in Super 32, even while missing the entire 2nd Quarter still brings a tear to my eye.  No Mike Bell, you shouldn't be wearing the #30.  On the field, Bell showed last season that he has the ability to run with some power and has the hops to be effective at the goalline.  What he lacks, however, is anything close to approaching NFL speed.  There were at least 3 or 4 times last season Bell broke a long run and was caught.  Few elite running backs get caught from behind.  A good example is Davis, never known for his blazing speed, but rarely caught from behind.  Bell is a nice accessory piece, a good guy to bring in when your starter needs a blow, and solid around the goalline, but I wouldn't expect anything more.  It is good to have guys like Bell on the team, and he'll be solid.

  Cecil Sapp (5-11, 229) --

Sapp is the latest in a long line of "tweener" backs Mike Shanahan likes to keep around.  Sapp can play both positions if needed, FB or RB, and is a solid special team as well.  There seems to be talk that Sapp could get worked more into the offense this season but I can't see Sapp making that big of a splash.  What Sapp can do is run back kicks, and he plays very well on the coverage team as well.  Undrafted coming out of Colorado State in 2003, Sapp is 7th on the Rams all-time rushing list and scored 28 TDs in 23 games while at CSU.  Sapp, like many of his teammates, was undrafted out of college and spent time on the Broncos practice squad, and is turning himself into a decent depth player in the NFL.

  Andre Hall (5-10, 205) --

Hall is an intriguing character, no doubt about.  His critics will say he is too small, too slow, not elusive, blah, blah, blah, yet all Hall does when he gets the chance is produce.  Hall completed his collegiate career as the University of South Florida's all-time leading rusher (2,731 yards) on 480 carries. He added 24 career rushing touchdowns and caught 44 passes for 470 yards (10.7 avg.) with three scores while returning 16 kickoffs for 332 yards (20.8). He eclipsed the 100-yard plateau 12 times in 23 games, including three 200-yard outings. He was chosen as a first-team All-Big East Conference selection in 2005.  I don't know what the future holds for Hall, but the Broncos are going to take a serious look at him at Training Camp, and if one thing's for sure, never count Andre Hall out.

  Selvin Young (5-11, 207) --

The Broncos are hoping to strike gold in the undrafted market again in 2007, bringing former Longhorn Selvin Young on board.  At the University of Texas, Young played 49 career games (16 starts) and finished his career ranked 19th on the school's all-time rushing list with 1,713 yards and 25 touchdowns on 365 carries (4.7 avg.). As a kickoff returner, Young had 43 attempts for 994 yards (23.1 avg.) and a touchdown while adding eight punt returns for 139 yards (17.4 avg.) and two touchdowns, which tied for the most by a player in school history. His three total return scores equaled the school's career standard. Young finished his collegiate career with 3,060 all-purpose yards and was an honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference selection in 2006.  Young is another in a long line of college players that suffered a bit from being in "committee-based" running back systems.  Young seems to have the speed, size and strength to be a running back in NFL, but doesn't run all the strong and isn't a very physical runner.   Young will probably find himself on the practice squad if he makes the team, but a player like Young is worth the look.

My Depth Chart --

HB

  1.  Travis Henry
  2.  Mike Bell
  3.  Andre Hall
  4.  Cecil Sapp
FB
  1.  Kyle Johnson
  2.  Cecil Sapp
  3.  Paul Smith
Sorry, Thump Belton supporters, I don't think Belton is going to stick, on the active roster, anyway.  The seven players I mentioned are veritable locks given each stays healthy.  Sapp provides flexibility, playing several different positions, and Paul Smith is a solid special teams player.  My wildcard is Hall, who like Greg Eslinger, reminds of of the Little Train That Could.  Both guys are continually bashed for their size, speed, strength, yet both players seem to produce.  I like those guys, guys that live their whole lives being told what they can't do.  Guys like that make an impression on me and on Shanny as well.  He isn't afraid to keep a guy like Hall if he is the one producing.   Sure, it's a limb, and it's not the safe pick, but what the hell.  

As for the top of the depth chart, the Broncos need Kyle Johnson to stay healthy and play a full season else he risks not making the team at all.  I look for Travis Henry to have a huge season (1500 yards) and really be the spark the Broncos offense has been lacking.  He doesn't have the home run speed Tatum Bell possessed, but Henry is a much more consistent player and tremendous against the blitz, something the Broncos did not do a good job picking up in 2006.  The Broncos should reclaim their perch at the top of the NFL Rushing charts, which should mean big things for the Broncos offense in 2007.