32 Questions: What to make of Denver's running game

Is it worth rolling the dice on a Denver running back?

Call it "The Never-Ending Running Back Story."

The Denver running back scenario has been the bane of fantasy owners since Clinton Portis was shipped to Washington for Champ Bailey in February 2004, truly beginning Mike Shanahan's shenanigans.

In Shanahan's 13 seasons as the Broncos' coach, the starting running back in Week 1 has lost his job during that season six times. Those 13 seasons include the five seasons that either Terrell Davis or Portis was the traditional feature back, getting about 300 carries. So in reality, "The Shanahan Switch" has been made in six of eight seasons.

Ken Daube's brilliant piece on the death of the two-stud-running-back theory included some information particularly pertinent to Denver. In the article, Daube highlighted ESPN's Jason Vida's telling research about the decline of the feature back: "The player who led his team in rushing attempts accounted for fewer than 54 percent of his team's attempts, the lowest percentage in the past 10 NFL seasons. At the same time, the player with the second-most rushing attempts on his team got the ball on more than 23 percent of his team's attempts, the highest percentage in the past 10 NFL seasons."

Call the Broncos progressive. They've been "sharing" the load among their RB corps for years now. Let's take a look at the numbers post-Portis:

  • 2004: Out-of-nowhere fantasy stud Reuben Droughns leads the team with 275 carries, 1,481 total yards and eight touchdowns. Quentin Griffin and Tatum Bell factor in with 85 and 75 carries, respectively.

  • 2005: Out-of-nowhere fantasy stud Mike Anderson posts 239 rushes for 1,014 yards and 12 TDs, plus 18 catches for 212 yards and a TD. Bell carries the ball 173 times for 921 yards and eight TDs.

  • 2006: The torch is passed to Bell, who accumulates 233 rushes for 1,025 yards with two TDs, plus 24 catches for 115 yards. But yet another undrafted tailback emerges, as Mike Bell posts 157 rushes for 677 yards and eight TDs, plus 20 catches for 158 yards.

  • 2007: Travis Henry rushes 167 times for 691 yards and four TDs while Selvin Young nets 140 rushes for 729 yards and a TD, plus 35 catches for 231 yards.

Only Droughns in 2004 and Anderson in '05 posted truly valuable, yearlong fantasy seasons. Since then, no Denver running back has established much job security or consistent production. Last season was a low point for fantasy value among the Denver running back corps, as the Broncos didn't have a 1,000-yard running back for the first time since 2001.

Second-year back Young, the team's leading rusher in 2007, was named the starter heading into '08 a few weeks ago after the job had been up for grabs for much of the offseason. The undrafted Young was effective in limited carries with an impressive 5.2 yards-per-carry average last season but failed to prove he was either durable or a goal-line threat. When asked if he felt Young could bear a heavy workload, Shanahan was less than confident.

"No, definitely not," Shanahan said. "Anytime a guy's been hurt as many times as he did, you know that there's no possible way he can carry the ball 20, 25 times a game. The body just won't hold up. He went down too many times this year. But you are looking at a guy that you know has big-play potential."

Shanahan later estimated that, given Young's lack of size and durability, the back should receive 15 carries per game. If Young were to hold onto the job throughout the year and maintain this 15-carry clip, however unlikely, he certainly would rack up more than 1,000 yards even with a drop in his yards per carry. Yet, there's always a catch with the Broncos.

When you consider drafting Young this season, you also will need to know the team's RB depth chart intimately. Andre Hall currently is Young's backup and, if the preseason so far is any indicator, looks to be in line to take the goal-line carries. Impressive rookie Ryan Torain was slated to be the goal-line back after winning over Shanahan, but he is out three months with an elbow injury. Hall replaced Young in the red zone on the Broncos' first two drives against the Cowboys last weekend and was used as the short-yardage back, tallying seven rushes for 24 yards and a touchdown.

This being Denver, there are of course more names to consider. Anthony Alridge moved up to third on the depth chart with Torain out and is the most recent in a long line of undrafted rookie running backs with whom Shanahan has fallen in love. The slight, speedy Alridge was an effective scat-back at the University of Houston and has been impressive so far in camp. He reportedly is excelling at identifying the cutback lanes the Broncos' system thrives on. Former Buc Michael Pittman is being converted to fullback, yet he is the most talented pass-catching back on the roster. However, Pittman currently isn't a threat for many carries.

Denver's famous zone-blocking scheme is the very reason the RB scenario has long been such a fantasy enigma. It's so effective that it allows the team to essentially plug and play a variety of inexpensive backs without much dropoff in production. Whenever one of these players is underperforming or injured, the team simply dives into its stash, thus the current four-headed monster.

If this current Young/Hall split continues, look for this season to mirror 2006. Young should play the Tatum Bell role on his way to 1,000 yards, mostly between the 20s, with a modest TD total, and Hall should play the vulture role Mike Bell so ably performed. Alridge and Pittman, for good measure, are the ever-present wild cards.

Young currently is going 72nd overall (sixth or seventh round), according to ESPN live draft results, with a cheap average auction price of just $5.70. Hall is landing in the late rounds, more often than not to Young investors, while Alridge and Pittman often go undrafted. If you like reading fantasy updates and enduring Sunday morning stress, you should draft Young as your third, possibly fourth, running back depending on your league's rules. If you invest in Young in the middle rounds, you'll want to nab Hall several rounds later and target Pittman and Alridge throughout the season.

Jim McCormick is an analyst for ESPN.com fantasy football.