Just as the Broncos caught a glimpse of how effective their best running back committee in at least a decade could be, it’s reverting to a solo show with an intriguing but uncertain leading man.
C.J. Anderson’s injury pauses a rising career and eliminates the fourth-year running back’s chances at his first 1,000-yard season. That responsibility falls on Devontae Booker, who has looked good as the B-side of this timeshare but now has to be the fulcrum for an offense devoid of much depth.
Anderson will venture to IR and can’t come back until late December at the earliest — the recovery timetable for this type of knee surgery ranges between eight and 12 weeks, per Mike Klis of 9News — so this will be Booker’s backfield much earlier than expected.
The fourth-round pick out of Utah looks like the goods so far, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and gaining 90 yards on 17 carries in his first game as a full-time committee member. But doing this without the aid of Anderson’s bulldozing style and understanding of Gary Kubiak’s system will be difficult.
While the Mike Shanahan/Kubiak zone-blocking scheme has generated quality work from rookies in the past — as Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis can attest — it would be wise for Broncos fans not to expect too much from Booker.
His previoius-era predecessors had better offensive lines to run behind and a scheme that was still a cutting-edge operation at the time. Booker and Anderson looked great against the Texans, but the Broncos’ ground game has struggled for much of the season.
Denver’s offensive front features Matt Paradis, Pro Football Focus’ No. 1-rated center, and a collection of iffy complementary blockers. And the Broncos have next to no depth up front in case another injury should emerge, and odds are one’s coming. Anderson’s injury is going to place more on the shoulders of Trevor Siemian and a top-heavy passing attack.
Siemian has looked much better than expected given his backstory, but his best chance of succeeding came by running Kubiak’s beloved play-action and supplementing the run game accordingly. Neither of the Broncos’ quarterbacks profiles as a player who’s going to shred defenses without the benefit of an upper-echelon ground force at this point in their careers. And Siemian doesn’t have enough options in the passing game if the offensive front suddenly can’t create space.
Beyond Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas is a collection of bit players, with this season featuring as little from the tight end spot as the Broncos have enjoyed since the Tim Tebow season. No Denver tight end has 100 yards receiving yet, and Anderson’s 128 through the air are the third-most on the team — behind Sanders’ 499 and Thomas’ 456.
Another receiving option needs to emerge to help the defending Super Bowl champions offset the loss of their most promising running back since the early 2000s.
Booker handled big workloads at Utah, totaling five 30-plus-carry games in 10 outings last season. He’s adept in the passing game, as his 80 receptions in two Ute years show. So it will be interesting to see how the 212-pound ball-carrier can handle a battlefield promotion. Career practice squad presence Kapri Bibbis is now the next in line, and while running backs are among the easiest producers to replace, Anderson brought a toughness that isn’t present on the current roster.
His breakaway escapes against the Patriots and Bengals last season went a long way toward the Broncos securing home-field advantage, and the 25-year-old’s 90 rushing yards in Super Bowl 50 were Denver’s most reliable form of transportation that day.
This also could throw a wrench in Anderson’s long-term status since the Dolphins-constructed contract contains no guaranteed money after this season. He should still have a key role in 2017 and beyond, with cheap salary cap numbers on tap, but a season-ending injury changes the complexion a bit.
As for the Broncos, their margin for error thins further in a tougher division than the ones they won in the recent past. More pressure is coming for a defense accustomed to operating without a safety net.