The Broncos have a problem that started with the NFL draft in April and was complicated by a pair of phone calls in the ensuing months, first to Kansas City and then to Natchez, Miss.
It’s a welcome problem — one that teams strive to have and one the Broncos are cherishing for the remaining days of training camp and the preseason. But it’s one they soon will have to solve.
With the selection of sixth-round draft pick De’Angelo Henderson, the signings of veterans Jamaal Charles and Stevan Ridley and the returns of C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker (when healthy) and Juwan Thompson, the Broncos’ once-dormant running game has seemingly been revived with a unique blend of talent.
The preseason opener at Chicago on Thursday was a test of patience as the Broncos continue to work through the kinks of a new scheme and search for the starter at multiple positions, none more significant than quarterback. But among the more promising aspects was their ground game, which gained 106 yards (4.1 per-carry average) against the Bears and included the winning 41-yard touchdown run by Henderson late in the fourth quarter.
“What we saw tonight is what he’s been since we drafted the guy in the spring,” first-year Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said of Henderson after the 24-17 victory over the Bears. “So I’m not surprised to see that tonight.”
For the past two years, the Denver running game has failed to launch in the way general manager John Elway envisioned. But this season — thanks in large part to a remade offensive line whose pride is tied to run blocking — sure has the potential to be the charm and the key to supporting Denver’s quarterbacks and still-developing offense.
“From what I watched on film to what I see now, it’s a different attitude,” Joseph said. “In my opinion, it’s the offensive line that has made the most improvement. Now, running back-wise, adding Jamaal Charles and adding a guy like Ridley, that obviously makes you better. It makes the competition tough in that room.”
Subway and second chances
Training camp opened with a setback. Booker, Denver’s No. 2 running back who had been pushing to be No. 1, suffered a fractured wrist. A pair of screws would fix him, but the Broncos couldn’t fill his void on the field for the remainder of camp and the preseason.
Enter Ridley, a free agent who spent four years with the New England Patriots and topped 1,200 yards rushing in 2012 but started only six games over the last three years because of injuries. His shot at a career revival was offered July 27.
“I told my mom about it at Subway,” he said with a laugh. “A small country town in Natchez, Miss., there’s not too many options. You’ve got Wendy’s, McDonald’s and pretty much Burger King, so Subway takes it.”
Then he drove three hours to New Orleans, boarded a plane to Denver and worked out for Joseph, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and running backs coach Eric Studesville inside the Broncos’ field house. Then he signed on a dotted line, suited up in a No. 47 practice jersey and took the field for his first walkthrough.
All in a day’s work.
The next morning, Ridley announced his arrival after throwing on shells and a helmet. He “flashed” — a term Denver coaches have used often to describe their rushers — showing his ability to find his holes at the line and power through them.
Ridley said he wanted to provide “stability” to the running backs room, but he has been a welcome disruption — and a contender for a coveted roster spot.
“He’s a pro,” Studesville said. “He approaches this the professional way. And he knows the great opportunity that’s sitting here. We’re very excited about him.”
The Broncos also are excited about Charles, once an AFC West nemesis as a Kansas City Chiefs star who signed a one-year contract in May to fit with Joseph’s theme of infusing the offense with speed. Charles didn’t play Thursday against the Bears, but he is expected to take the field at some point in preseason as he eases his way back from knee surgeries that hindered his last two years in the league.
He says his troublesome knees no longer are a concern. The Broncos hope he’s right.
“I don’t feel rusty. I feel good,” Charles said after two days of camp. “I told the guys in the locker room, when I see one of you kids beat me, it’s time for me to give it up.”
So far, that kid testing Charles is Henderson, a 5-foot-7 speedster from Coastal Carolina who has given the Broncos a weapon on the ground and in the passing game.
“Speed kills. That ain’t my game,” Anderson said. “So, No. 28 (Charles) or No. 33 (Henderson) can go out there and they’re fast. If it’s time to bulk some muscle and hit somebody in the mouth, call No. 22.”
Charles Rex Arbogast, The Associated Press
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian hands the ball off to C.J. Anderson in the first quarter of their preseason win over the Bears on Thursday.
No longer a one-guy position
If Joseph had his way, the depth chart that was announced last week wouldn’t exist. With multiple position battles underway and many lines blurred because of scheme, the depth chart is misleading and temporary.
It could change — as quickly as the Broncos’ running backs room changed.
But for now, Anderson is No. 1. For now, Booker — despite his wrist injury — is No. 2. For now, Charles, Ridley, Henderson, Thompson and Bernard Pierce are lumped together in the No. 3 slot.
“The running back position — you need two or three guys that can carry the load,” Joseph said. “It is no longer a one-guy position.”
The competition could prompt the Broncos to take on another tailback and sacrifice depth elsewhere, especially as the backs flaunt a dynamic few other NFL teams can match.
“I also think the way we’re used in the passing game is that other extension of the running game,” Anderson said. “So if we’re not running the ball well, but catching the ball out of the backfield and keeping the defense honest, we’ll still open up some lanes for us to run the ball.”
It’s a Denver problem that could make for tough decisions Sept. 2, when rosters across the league must be pared to the final 53.
“Tough? No,” Studesville said with a smile. “Tough is when you don’t have anybody.”