Denver Broncos

Broncos have makings of unique long-term backfield partnership

18 September 2016: Denver Broncos running back Devontae Booker (23) runs with the ball.  The Denver Broncos defeated the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 34 to 20 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO.  (Photo by Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire

Although finding out what its capabilities are will be put on hold after Wednesday brought news of C.J. Anderson’s surprisingly significant knee injury, the Broncos’ backfield looks to have a rare opportunity ahead.

It will take on a different and not entirely known form when Devontae Booker operates solo for the time being, but the Anderson-Booker partnership has a chance to be something Denver has not quite featured — a long-term running back coalition.

Both showed what’s possible by mashing the Texans in a consistent, 190-yard effort that didn’t include breakaway jaunts to distort the average; that happened frequently last year as the Broncos became a boom-or-bust ground proposition. Their steady ground gains gashed Houston and put too much on Brock Osweiler’s itinerary for a victory to occur, and the Broncos’ newly assembled tag team pulled a stalled offense off the ledge.

The Broncos still don’t have enough depth in the passing game and are obviously limited at quarterback, but having a two-pronged rushing attack with complementary pieces helps make up for some of their other deficiencies.

And considering the nature of the cogs’ contracts, Anderson-Booker could be a component of future Denver offenses as well. The 25- and 24-year-old backs should each stand to be productive throughout their current deals, with neither pact set to cause the Broncos much concern going forward.

This runs counter to how the Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak teams rolled for the most part during the 1990s and 2000s.

Yes, Anderson-Ronnie Hillman was a legitimate committee, but it’s becoming clear Booker is better than Hillman. And last season’s offensive line and ever-changing styles restricted the ground game, one now the driving force behind the Broncos at their best.

02 October 2016: Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) is tackled by Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Bradley McDougald (30) in the 2nd quarter of the NFL regular season game between the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

02 October 2016: Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) is tackled by Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Bradley McDougald (30) in the 2nd quarter of the NFL regular season game between the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

Before Anderson-Hillman, a series of clear backfield orders took handoffs in Denver in between zone-blocking iterations.

Anderson bludgeoned teams late in 2014 without the assistance of Hillman or Montee Ball, and Knowshon Moreno’s peak year didn’t leave room for much help in 2013. Willis McGahee reaped the benefits of the constructed-on-the-fly Tim Tebow offense in 2011, helping revive the Broncos’ running game after a half-decade of unremarkable play.

During the Shanahan/Kubiak years, Terrell Davis set the tone as a one-cut dynamo, piecing together Hall of Fame-caliber brilliance for four years. His successors weren’t as productive, but Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns had one thing in common in the ensuing five seasons: they didn’t need help. Shanahan was fine riding his starter without the aid of a change-of-pace back.

The only backfield Anderson/Booker resembles in modern Broncos history was the Mike Anderson/Tatum Bell pairing in 2005, one that saw both runners surpass 900 yards.

That group ran behind a superior offensive line than what the current duo enjoys and helped propel the Broncos to the AFC title game, with Mike Anderson as the lead dog and Bell as the breakaway backup. However, M. Anderson was already 32 by that point and left via free agency after that season to end the tandem’s run early.

This duo can be better and not just because of longevity.

Booker isn’t as fast as Bell was but has the makings of a more complete back. C.J. Anderson hasn’t delivered as consistently as Mike Anderson did, but he also didn’t have the lines the Broncos’ previous ball-carrying Anderson did and has looked like a more imposing runner at his best.

Thanks to Booker being on his rookie contract through 2019 and Anderson signed through ’19 as well on one of the better veteran deals possible, a quick breakup looks highly unlikely.

The Dolphins hoped the $6 million salary cap number this season would scare off the then-cap-strapped Broncos, but John Elway wisely saw how friendly this four-year, $18 million deal would be down the road if Anderson continued to develop. He’s only going to count $1.7 million against the Broncos’ cap next season and $4.5M on Denver’s 2018 and ’19 payrolls. Those figures are harmless now on a $155 million-plus cap. As the salary ceiling continues to rise, Anderson’s figures will be even greater steals for the Broncos.

They have no reason to part with their workhorse starter, regardless of how Booker performs this season.

With no guaranteed money coming to Anderson after this season, that deal is going to look borderline criminal for the Broncos, who have enjoyed their fair share of bargain-buy success this decade.

Having shown Monday night with a season-best 107-yard game — most of that figure coming after he injured his knee in the first quarter — Anderson solidified his place in the Broncos’ backfield. He’s a low-center-of-gravity bruiser that fits well in Kubiak’s system, and his enthusiasm and candor have made him a favorite among Denver fans.

However, Booker does have a chance to reshape this committee in the coming weeks.

A Bay Area product like Anderson, the fourth-round pick out of Utah also has shown some power and brings more speed to the table than the third-year starter. He tore through the Texans (17 carries, 90 yards) when called upon and also flashed against the Chargers, so a full workload for the rookie will be interesting to observe.

He could conceivably become the A-side of this arrangement, but Anderson will have a key role no matter what happens based on his work over the past three seasons.

After a decade filled with short-term fixes, prospects that didn’t quite meet expectations, or simply forgettable backfields, the Broncos have two talented, affordable backs who can wound defenses in different ways.

Monday night brought the first glimpse of what this newfound timeshare could bring, and despite Anderson’s injury, it has the look of a sustainable setup for the rest of the 2010s.

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