Broncos award C.J. Anderson big contract, raise their expectations

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – After the Denver Broncos took virtually every minute of the allotted five days to decide running back C.J. Anderson’s football fate, they gave Anderson what he had hoped to receive.

The Broncos matched a four-year, $18 million offer sheet from the Miami Dolphins and made Anderson one of the highest-paid players at his position. Anderson stays with the team he has called home for his four NFL seasons.

And he gets to be the running back in an offense determined to get better running the ball next season. But the Broncos also handed Anderson something else in the deal -- a far bigger pile of expectations.

“I think that anybody … they’re getting paid the money and C.J.’s contract, what he’s getting paid in his contract, the expectations always go up,’’ Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “That’s what I told C.J. ‘You know what? The expectations of you as a leader as well as somebody that is a part of this organization, all those expectations go up.’ With the rise in pay also goes the rise in expectations, and I think C.J. understands that and he’s ready to handle that.’’

When the Broncos elected to match the Dolphins’ offer sheet -- they had originally tendered Anderson without compensation if they had elected not to match any offer he received -- they did it with the idea that they just might ask Anderson to do something he hasn’t done since he left junior college.

While Anderson did lead the Broncos in rushing attempts in 2014, it was done with 179 carries, a fairly modest total that tied Anderson for 20th in the league. Since arriving at Cal in 2011 through the Broncos Super Bowl season of 2015, Anderson has not topped those 179 carries, or 11.2 per game, in any season. He has not had a 1,000-yard rushing season or started more than seven games in any of those seasons.

“My expectations are higher than [Elway’s], I promise you that,’’ Anderson said this week. “I’ll leave it right there.’’

Anderson has played well in big moments with plays like his 45-yard touchdown run in overtime against the New England Patriots this past season to go with 90 yards rushing in the Super Bowl 50 win. He has finished runs with purpose, kept drives moving and showed he could transition from the offense the Broncos played when he arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2013 to the offense coach Gary Kubiak installed this past season.

But questions about conditioning or why he seemed to run better coming off the bench have trailed him -- in the regular season in 2015 both his 100-yard efforts were in games he did not start. His big-time stretch run in 2014, that included back-to-back games when the topped 160 yards, came after he had dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart earlier that year and only after Montee Ball as well as Ronnie Hillman were injured.

Now Anderson’s contract makes him The Guy in the run game. How he arrives to the team’s offseason program in mid-April will offer at least a first glimpse at his readiness for that.

“People still think you can’t do it, I can’t be the bell cow back, I can’t stay healthy,’’ Anderson said. “ … Again, the best motivation is when I came in four years ago I told [running backs coach Eric Studesville] that I wanted to be the best to ever do it. I want to be one of the best running backs to ever play the game. To be up there with some of those guys and some of those guys in the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to go to work every day.’’

With Hillman an unrestricted free agent and not expected back, Anderson leads a running back group that includes Juwan Thompson, Kapri Bibbs and Cyrus Gray. The Broncos will keep an eye on the available free agents as their offseason work gets closer and with 10 picks in the April draft, the expectation is if they see the right back, they’ll use at least one selection at the position.

But in the end Anderson has consistently said he believes he’s ready to be the No. 1 back and now the Broncos appear to have finally agreed.

“I think I can do it. I mean, I know I can do it,’’ Anderson said. “It’s not like I haven’t done it before. I’ve done it before … I’ve got a running backs coach that’s not going to let up or let me breathe when it comes to being successful, believe that. He knows just how strong and hardheaded I am to be successful. He’s going to be on that, too. We’ll get it done.’’