Deep crop of running backs in draft drawing Broncos' interest

The Broncos have met with San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, who could be an option on the second day of the draft. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos moved through their early work in free agency they signed a quarterback, as expected.

They made some trades, as expected.

And they let several of their own free agents hit the open market to seek financially greener pastures elsewhere, as expected.

But perhaps the one surprise, at least judging from what was said in the weeks immediately following their 5-11 finish last season, is that running back C.J. Anderson remains on the roster. Even Anderson, who had his first career 1,000-yard rushing season in 2017, said he had questions about whether he was part of the Broncos' plan for 2018.

"We'll see ... I don't have any idea, that's a decision upstairs," had been his familiar refrain before he went into the offseason.

But as the Broncos begin their offseason conditioning program Monday and with the draft approaching, there is another bit of potential uncertainty on the way. That's because while much of the pre-draft buildup has centered on the quarterback class at the top of the board, it is also a year when the draft is flush with running backs.

So much so that many personnel executives in the league believe potential impact ball carriers can be found well into the draft's second day. That's not to say running back is a position of need for the Broncos; it's just at some point in the three-day draft, the "best player available" when the Broncos pick could well be a back because the group is so deep.

With Anderson and Devontae Booker atop the depth chart and a desire to see more from De'Angelo Henderson -- a sixth-round pick in the 2017 draft -- the Broncos can certainly stand pat. Coach Vance Joseph gave the indication standing pat would work just fine at last month's league meetings.

Asked about the potential for Booker to have a bigger role, Joseph said: "Obviously C.J. is still with us, so that will be a competition there. It won't be given to him. [Anderson] just rushed for 1,000 yards and he just stayed healthy for 16 weeks, so it won't be easy for Devontae."

But the runners in the draft could still impact things for the Broncos, especially since they have four picks among the top 99 in the draft. All eight of their picks are currently in the draft's first five rounds.

The intrigue could start with the Broncos' first pick -- No. 5 overall. If quarterbacks are among the first three or four players taken, the Broncos could have the chance to select from a group of players that would include Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Many teams consider Barkley and NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb the best players in the draft.

But there's plenty of running-back talent beyond Barkley. Georgia's combo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, along with LSU's Derrius Guice, USC's Ronald Jones II, San Diego State's Rashaad Penny and Auburn's Kerryon Johnson all have No. 1 back potential and could be selected before the second round is over.

Add players such as Oregon's Royce Freeman, Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough and Tennessee’s John Kelly, and the potential to find a primary running back is greater than it's been in recent years.

Whether the Broncos dive in will depend on how things fall on draft day or if potential trade talks include players like Anderson. There would have been quick interest in Anderson had the Broncos released him when free agency opened, but his salary could impact potential trade discussions.

At $4.5 million, Anderson has the fourth-highest base salary at the position, in part because players like Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley II are on their rookie contracts. But the Broncos are looking, as Penny was among their 30 on-site visits leading up to the draft. They were also one of the teams to formally meet with Barkley at the scouting combine in February.

President of football operations/general manager John Elway has routinely said he subscribes to taking the highest-graded player on the Broncos' draft board at the time each of their picks come around, no matter what the team needs. And they have taken players at positions that weren't at need positions in the past, including Shane Ray as a first-round pick when the team had Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

"We'll do whatever gives us the best guys to be Denver Broncos," Elway has said.

"I look at it where you kind of fill needs in free agency [but] in the draft you want really find those players you feel good about no matter where they play."