ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Just how big the crowd is at running back for the Denver Broncos can best be explained by the fact that the team’s leading rusher in a season that ended with a Super Bowl win -- Ronnie Hillman -- is in a battle to keep his roster spot.
While C.J. Anderson led the Broncos down the stretch and into the postseason, Hillman led the team in carries (207), rushing yards (863) and rushing touchdowns (seven). But in the things-change department, Hillman finds himself in an all-out, every-rep-matters competition to reclaim the kind of workload he had in the offense.
“I'm always (behind) the eight ball, but I always find a way out of it,’’ Hillman said. “I plan to do that again this year.’’
It could be a more difficult task than ever since Hillman arrived as a third-round pick in 2012. Hillman entered the offseason as an unrestricted free agent and wasn't re-signed by the Broncos until mid-April -- a one-year, $2 million deal that came a month after free agency had opened. Even at that point, the Broncos were making plans at the position that are now easy to see as training camp picks up steam.
Anderson, fresh off the Broncos matching an $18 million offer sheet from the Miami Dolphins to keep him, and in the best shape of his career, has worked as the lead back throughout the offseason program and in training camp’s early going. That’s one spot on the depth chart.
The Broncos also used a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft to bring in Devontae Booker. And at 219 pounds with vision, to go with receiving skills out of the backfield, Booker has shown enough for the Broncos to already be considering him part of the group. That’s a second spot on the depth chart.
“It's kind of weird, but at the end of the day we're all helping each other to go out and compete against each other,’’ Booker said. “I'm pretty sure you don't want to just look at a guy that's struggling out there in the field and you're just blowing right by him in reps. We just try to be helpful to each other so [we] can go out and compete against each other to make it a very competitive day in practice.’’
Add in Juwan Thompson, who can play both running back and fullback, to go with rookie fullback Andy Janovich, whom the Broncos selected with a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft, and you can see even more of the crowd forming around Hillman. And that doesn't include Kapri Bibbs, who has consistently drawn praise from coach Gary Kubiak throughout the offseason.
Thompson and Janovich are already each slotted into a full slate of special-teams duties as well. Last season, when the Broncos trimmed the roster to 53 players just before the regular season, they kept three running backs and one tight end/fullback swing player, James Casey.
If they stick to that total this time around, Hillman could find himself in a tough spot, given that the Broncos have already shown plenty of two-back sets and Kubiak has promised a fullback is going to be a part of the offense.
Certainly things can happen. There are preseason games to be played, and there's the potential for injury at a high-impact position. For his part, Kubiak said this week he hasn’t decided yet if the team will use a primary back or feature a by-committee approach. He wants to see how things unfold in the weeks ahead.
“I think that’s up to the players,’’ Kubiak said. “They always talk about guys being two-down or three-down players. I think C.J. has proven he is a three-down player. He does a good job in pass protection and those type of things. I think Ronnie took those same steps last year. Devontae, this young kid we just got, has made a lot of strides. ... I think we are all excited to see what he can be. I really think that’s up to the player. They have to go out there and prove that they can go out there and carry 25 times, down the field, on third down, protect your quarterback. That’s what we are going to work to do.’’