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MHR's 2008 Position Review -- Running Backs


Few positions among Denver's battered crew have as much controversy surrounding them, in regards to what they are capable of producing. NYCbroncosfan makes a strong case for limited production as a philosophical trend, and advocates addressing the running game by taking a hard look at the personnel, in order to cut the dead weight and replace with production where necessary. Even as he stated his case, the Broncos fired RBs PJ Pope, Alex Haynes, and fan-favorite, Anthony Alridge.

And that is just the beginning of the hard look.

What remains of the 2008 RB M.A.S.H. unit consists of change-up runners Tatum Bell, Selvin Young and Andre Hall. It also has the power styles of RBs Michael Pittman and Ryan Torain, as well as FB Peyton Hillis. As a wild-card, RB Cory Boyd managed to survive the first purge, while true FB Andrew Pinnock and converted MLB Spencer Larsen, playing at FB, rounds out the crew.

The reason RB is such a controversial position going into 2009 is because the number of variables cause the splits between the different camps to be amorphous and ill-defined. In defending one's opinion against one argument, a person finds that they actually hold an opinion they hadn't endorsed. One thing is quite certain however: the position was plagued by injuries in 2008. Try to follow along...

It started with Torain, Alridge and Hillis, with Hillis never getting enough reps in camp due to a lingering hamstring injury, Alridge and his own hamstring injury going to IR with what was called a sprained foot, and Torain breaking his elbow. Torain would eventually return on Nov.6th only to go to IR with an torn ACL. When Torain went down, Young was battling a torn groin he sustained 5 weeks earlier. It would sideline him for two games before he ruptured a disc in his neck and would be moved to IR, only a week after a hamstring injury IR'ed Hillis. Of course, they weren't alone on IR as Hall and Pittman had gone on IR earlier. Hall went to IR after a short season that featured 3 games limited by a wrist injury, 5 games limited by an ankle injury, and finally a hand injury that ended his season. Pittman had suffered through a broken rib after falling awkwardly on the ball earlier in the season but was finally sent to IR with numbness from a neck injury that wouldn't dissipate. Pope, one of the final pieces added near the end of the season would also go to IR for a hamstring injury, and even part-timer Larsen would suffer through bouts with a hip injury, and a groin injury that limited him as the season wound to a close.

A list like this can only stupefy and amaze, but at some point the shock wears off and you have to ask, "Did we bring this on ourselves?"

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Tatum Bell 6 44 249 41.5 5.7 37 2 10 57 9.5 5.7 12 0

Tatum Bell literally came out of nowhere to help out for half a season. He occupied the change-up role as well as he ever did, but unfortunately, most of his actual production came only in the final game against San Diego, and frankly, that production came as a bit of a surprise. It wasn't that I was shocked to see him get a couple of long runs, it is that up to that point, he had shown that he was STILL a player who went backwards on first contact. He actually seemed like he was running with a little purpose, but one game is hardly a decisive sample, and the rest of the evidence contradicts his supposed value. Tatum has a much better attitude, mostly due to the reality check that being out of football provided for him, but he is still an underachiever who can't seem to realize his potential. When you add in that that potential fades every year, you will begin to understand why he isn't a strong candidate to end up in camp in 2009. While possible, it is more likely that Denver lets his FA status run its course without making an offer. His history of injuries, particularly his nagging bouts with turf toe, create a a situation where his roster spot may be more valuable than he is.

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Andre Hall 8 35 144 18.0 4.1 16 0 3 25 3.1 8.3 11 0

Not a year goes by where Hall doesn't seem to feel the lingering effect of the high ankle sprain he suffered in high school. Most who have suffered from the injury can attest to its longevity, and for Hall it seems to crop up once a year. But outside of the ankle sprains he suffers, his hands seem to give him more trouble than anything. In 2008 he injured his thumb in camp, than hurt his wrist early in the season, which limited him in practice, and put him on more than one inactive list for a game, and though his ankle slowed him down, it wasn't until he suffered a undisclosed injury to his hand that he got placed on IR.

But of all the change-up backs, Hall may have the most talent, and he certainly has the strongest running style. His low profile protects him more than it hurts him, and he knows how to fall forward. Talk of fumble-itis may be levied against Hall, but outside of the back to back fumbles against NE, he hasn't had any problems in that area. And while injuries may be considered a concern for Hall, I am only worried about the ankles, because the rest is pretty ticky-tack and I firmly believe that it was his standing in Shanny's doghouse that kept him off the field and contributed to his IR more than the beat-up hands.

As an exclusive-rights free agent, I would expect Hall to be invited to camp with an easy-on-the-eyes contract, with an expectation of showing that he can still perform against competition. If he stalls out in camp, he won't make the opening day 53.

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Selvin Young 8 61 303 37.9 5.0 49 1 3 16 2.0 5.3 8 0

In many ways, Young and Hall are mentioned in the same sentences. Though they were both signed to the active squad in the same year, and were both UFAs, Hall is actually a step ahead of Selvin in the development category, having played more college ball, and joined the Broncos a year earlier. But Young is the one tagged with being the better back of the two over the last two years, including being penciled in as a de facto starter several times, and even making the "Promise."

But Selvin has never risen to any of the lofty expectations placed on him, and it isn't just a trend limited to the Broncos. At Texas he missed 3 games in 2003 with a torn groin. In 2004 he missed the entire season with a broken ankle. In 2005 he injured his right ankle on two separate occasions, missing two games each time. In 2006 he missed a game with a left ankle sprain, and then missed two more games with a rib injury. In 2007 with the Broncos he injured his elbow and was limited in practice, and then sprained his knee and would end up missing five games as the season, and the Broncos playoff chances wound down and out.

2008 was no exception to this trend. In October he strained a groin muscle which would chronically limit him in games and practice starting in week 5. By week 10, he had completely torn the groin and was out for three weeks. When he finally returned, a solid hit would rupture a disc in his neck, sending him to IR. Folks, there is no reset button on the human body. Selvin is sustaining injuries at a rate that practically precludes the ability to recover, and frankly, the total is astonishing at this point.

But when healthy, there is no doubt that Selvin can produce. So much so in fact, that he was labeled a starter in waiting at Texas, behind Cedric Benson and by Mike Shanahan in Denver. His is a great story, about a kid who discovered how character can help you overcome adversity, but the production will never be there if we ask for too much.

Because Selvin is signed, there is no doubt he will be present in camp. If he is smart he will focus on nailing down the starting change-up back role, and do his best to stay healthy. The Broncos will probably only retain two change-ups, so he has little room for error, but he should still be able to make the team. But unless something drastic changes in regards to his chronic injuries, he is on the path out of Denver over the next couple of years.

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Michael Pittman 8 76 320 40.0 4.2 20 4 10 112 14.0 11.2 40 0

Pittman has the kind of veteran mindset that a young team like Denver needs, and which was always coveted in New England. It is the mindset where a player runs each play like it is going to be their last, and where everything gets left out on the field. There is an excellent chance that McJedi will also covet it, but Pittman's free agent status may make the decision less than a slam dunk.

Before hurting his ribs, and then sustaining a scary neck injury, Pittman brought some much needed physicality to the Broncos offense. What the offense then lacked in versatility, it made up for by determination. But when good defenses keyed on Pittman, he began to take a beating. Though he is an older player, he has kept the mileage low while in Tampa Bay, and he has a good attitude towards his own health and fitness, so that trend should continue. But to get the most out of him, the reps will need to be kept to minimum, which means that he will be #3 at best on the depth chart. As the #3 he creates a standard that the starters will have to meet or beat, with versatility and drive, but in a rebuild, the luxury of stocking the team with great RB talent may not be there. As a #2, the value for Pittman and the Broncos simply isn't there, as he would take too much of a beating in that role, and be used up by the time the December football rolls around, when he will be needed most. If the Broncos plan on bringing in top RB depth, Pittman should be a keeper, but if they plan on going with what they have, Pittman will probably be let go to find a better situation, while the younger bruisers are retained, to take the beatings that are sure to come. Pittman reported after the season that he is 100% healthy, so the onus is on the staff to decide what kind of team they are looking to become as the Broncos move forward.

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Ryan Torain 2 15 69 34.5 4.6 19 1 0 0 0 0 0 0

The biggest question mark hovers over Ryan Torain, who has played less football than I have over the past two years. He hasn't exactly been stocking shelves at Walmart, but he certainly hasn't been able to run full speed for some time. Starting in 2005 with the Sun Devils, he missed four games, and then in 2007 missed a total of nine games, including the final seven of the year with a fractured right toe and ankle injuries. In Denver, of course, he didn't get off to a hot start, with the worst news being the damaged ACL.

While people point to his very limited play against Cleveland as promising, I found that I didn't really like what I saw, including a nearly vertical running posture, and a lanky, drawn-out style that exposes him to too many different force angles. But there were pluses, including his vision and quick cutting ability.

After missing over 90% of critical practice time and game experience over the last two years, Ryan Torain is heading into a brand new offensive system, and is essentially a rookie all over again. Outside of working with Turner and Dennison last year, he has nothing going for him, and will need to bring everything he has to the table.

I can't imagine Denver cutting him before training camp, but any medical alerts about him should be weighted very seriously with regards to his future. I am hoping to see nothing less than "100%" and "Full Speed." It is very important that the RBs be ready to absorb McJedi's new offense starting with OTAs. Any holdup and the Torain Train may never make the station.

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2008 - Peyton Hillis 10 68 343 34.3 5.0 19 5 14 179 17.9 12.8 47 1

There is little to be added to the discussion on Hillis that BroncoBear didn't already cover in his fantastic piece, Peyton Hillis: The Hammer in 2009? 61% of MHR users felt that Peyton had proven what he needed to in his action as a starter, in order to be considered the primary back in the new offense. I will try to limit myself here to looking at the downside of Peyton as a the projected starter.

In Peyton's corner you have his toughness, the vote of confidence from his Pro Bowl center, his tremendous hands, heck, even his choice of end-zone celebration endears him to the fans. The dissenting opinions are few and far, and there is little traction for a truly spirited debate about Peyton's potential. But one idea which can stand on its own is how Peyton's virtues of toughness, fearlessness and power coupled with his particular bruising style of play put him in harm's way as often as they help the team, much like Jay's take no prisoner's mentality frequently reverses the field for the Broncos. Peyton is a player who draws hits like a magnet draws iron, and the result is a battering that only he has the ability to stand up to. This style of play led to fractured vertebrae in college, but again his toughness shines through, with the injury sidelining him only half the expected amount of time.

In the final analysis I have only two concerns regarding Hillis. The first is whether he will be available for a December playoff run, due to the pounding he would take as a starter, and the second, which is intimately tied to the first, is that I question whether he would be used to his maximum potential if he were required to be lined up in the backfield as the main back all the time.

As much as I enjoyed his two games of toting the rock from the RB position, the game that really stands out to me is the Miami game, where Hillis occupied the H-back role that garnered him so much acclaim at Arkansas. It took advantage of his skills such as his hands and quickness in ways that simply will never be realized as a 1st-and-10 RB. The match-ups that he can exploit in the one-on-one scenarios afforded by the H-back role simply don't exist at the level of the trenches. Can he run in the trenches? Absolutely. So can Cutler, and for a very healthy yards per attempt, too. But is he at his BEST in the trenches? I would say no. Hillis can certainly patch up the running back position, but only at the cost of the kinds of production that force teams to game-plan around him, when they fear what he could do as he roams around the offense, lining up as a RB in short yardage situations, flaring out as a FB to be the uncovered 3rd down reception, lining up as a TE to pressure the seam, and lining up wide as a WR where no one accounts for him and he magically appears uncovered in the end-zone.

Bottom line is that Hillis is the surest option at RB currently on the roster. But he would be stepping down in production and worth to occupy that role. It would be the equivalent of lining Dallas Clark up at RB. I'm sure he would bring some physicality to the position, but then he wouldn't be available to destroy defensive schemes for Peyton Manning as a H-back.


After the above group, the roster rounds out with RB Cory Boyd, FB Andrew Pinnock and FB/MLB Spencer Larsen.

As a FB, I don't know if Larsen catches onto the starters, but his versatility should catch the eye of McJedi. In a perfect world Larsen is in the running for ILB and we can forget this FB nonsense, but the fact is that he has experience at FB, and he struggled at MLB in very limited exposure. His Special Teams play guarantees a roster spot however, so he should be around through and after camp. Larsen was only adequate as a blocking FB however, and he has mentioned how uncomfortable he would be if he was ever asked to carry the rock. That may come to him with time, and as always, the hope is that his offensive skills can be left to the "trick plays" section of the playbook, and we all know what McJedi pulled out of his hat in that area while in NE.

Boyd is a project RB who failed a physical involving his knee when he was waived by TB last year. It is interesting that he survived the first wave of cuts, but as a late-season desperation signing one has to wonder how much longer he will hold on. He is currently sitting on an exceptionally valuable roster spot, even for the 72-man roster, so this will probably come down to Bobby Turner's evaluation of him.

Andrew Pinnock, the only true FB on the roster, may have his spot cemented from that fact alone, as he was never activated in 2008, despite Larsen having hip and groin injuries ahead of him. The potential is there, however, as Pinnock was never truly cut from SD. He was drafted to replace Lorenzo Neal under Schottenheimer, but LoNeal proved to be a durable commodity, and by the time he was let go, SD had moved away from that style of blocking FB, preferring the Hester style of, if I may be so bold, "wimpy" FB. Pinnock is a smart player, and has the speed and size to be a versatile FB. But if he were cut tomorrow, I don't suppose I would be terribly surprised.