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Broncos' track record bodes well for rookie Torain

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Ryan Torain's eyes were caught by the television. It was the fourth pick of the fifth round in April's NFL draft. He noticed that Denver, the team of choice for every college running back, was on the clock.

Torain's mind predictably started to envision 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the Broncos. Suddenly, he was brought back to the draft board by the sound of his ringing cell phone. He looked at the incoming call. There it was.

"It was a 303 [area code] number," Torain said. "I knew the call was coming from Colorado. I have a couple of friends from Colorado and I know the 303 is in Colorado. I was hoping it was the Broncos and not my friends calling."

Indeed, running back heaven was calling.

"I picked up the phone real quick and the voice on the other end said, 'Are you ready to be the next star running back for the Denver Broncos?'" Torain recalled of his brief conversation with a Broncos personnel official. "I said, 'Yes' and I've been smiling ever since."

With the 139th pick of the 2008 draft, the Broncos took Torain, a rugged running back from Arizona State. Even though he was drafted in the fifth round, Torain has a legitimate chance to make an impact this season. He is a prototypical Broncos running back. He hits the hole quickly and he's a downhill runner. He fits in Denver's zone-blocking scheme.

The Broncos using a fifth-round pick on a running back is the equivalent of any other NFL team selecting a tailback in the second round. After all, the Broncos have made a living out of scoring with late-round running backs. Terrell Davis was a sixth-round pick, as was Mike Anderson. Olandis Gary, a fourth-round selection in 1999, rushed for 1,159 yards as a rookie. Mike Bell and Selvin Young became contributors in the past two years after both were picked up as undrafted free agents.

Torain, whom Denver took with the draft choice acquired from AFC West-rival Oakland for defensive tackle Gerard Warren last August, is now part of Denver's running back consortium. And that means he has a chance to be the team's leading rusher this year. Yes, even as a fifth-round pick. Torain will be in the Broncos' camp, so he has a chance to be the top running back. That's how it works in Denver.

In Mike Shanahan's running system, easily the best in the NFL since 1995, five different players have led the team in rushing since 2003: Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, Anderson, Tatum Bell, and Young. Only Portis started his respective season as the sure No. 1 runner in training camp. Portis, Droughns, Anderson and Bell each left the team the season after leading the Broncos in rushing.

Shanahan thought he found his long-term answer at running back last year when Denver signed tested veteran Travis Henry to a five-year, $22 million deal. After four games in 2007, the plan was unfolding beautifully as Henry was leading the NFL in rushing. However, injuries and off-field issues ruined Henry's season. After he stopped showing up to work this spring, Henry was cut. His departure once again opened Denver's revolving door at running back.

When training camp opens July 25, Young will go in as the No. 1 back. He is followed by veteran Michael Pittman, recently signed from Tampa Bay, small playmaker Andre Hall and Torain.

Even though he is fourth on the depth chart, Torain shouldn't enter training camp feeling buried. No running back in Denver should ever feel that way. Both Mike Bell and Young came out of nowhere in the past two training camps and became big parts of the offense. The word inside the Denver organization is that Torain has performed well in minicamps and has picked up the running scheme quickly.

"This is a great place for any running back to be," Torain said. "This is the place you want to be. I know I have a long way to go. But running backs can and have done well here. I couldn't think of a better place to be. I'm ready to go for it."

Still, Shanahan maintained during minicamps that his running back crew may be a committee. In the past, Shanahan has been open to the idea, and he likes what he has in this group.

"We have good young players at running back," Shanahan said. "It is going to be interesting in training camp with a lot of good, hard competition. I like what I have in all my guys."

Young has a chance to be the top back, but because of his slight frame, there is concern. He has worn down at Denver and in college at Texas. Young led the Broncos with 729 yards rushing last year, but he spent a lot time on the sideline dealing with nagging injuries. With his game-breaking speed, there will be a place for Young in Denver's offense, but it remains to be seen if he can carry the load on a consistent basis. Shanahan himself has questioned Young's durability multiple times. Young has impressed the Broncos this offseason with his worth ethic and is out to prove he can handle as many carries as the team gives him.

"It's my job to show the coaches I can be productive in that sense, and it's up to me to stay healthy and do the things off the field and in the weight room to combat his ideas," Young said.

Pittman was brought in to be a short-yardage back and to provide toughness with his blocking and receiving in key situations. He'll be a role player. Hall made some big plays last year and will have a chance to get some carries, but like Young, he is small and injury prone.

Then there's Torain, the wild card of the bunch. Many in the Denver organization hope and believe Torain will emerge as the top running back this year. Because he's big and strong, Torain has the ability to carry the ball 20-25 times a game if needed. If he can meet those expectations, Denver will be in great shape and will be able to utilize all four of its tailbacks. But somebody has to be the lead runner and Torain is going to camp ready to stake his claim. And in Denver, even a fifth-round pick can feel this way in July.

"It's all in front of me," Torain said. "I just have to do the right things and hard work and great things can happen for me in Denver."

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.