The Enigmatic Emergence of Denver’s RB1
Peyton Manning hadn’t taken a live game snap in over a year. He was 36, attempting to come back from major spinal surgery for a new team that was just a couple months removed from full on Tebow-mania.
He went 4-of-7 for 44 yards and an interception against Chicago in Week 1 of the preseason. While the numbers were uninspiring, Manning cleared a vital mental hurdle and didn’t look back.
Denver has since been a perennial top five offense (total offense: 2012 = fourth, 2013 = fourth). While a Super Bowl win eludes them, Denver players are littered all over fantasy championship lineups. In fact, Manning has manufactured two of the top seven fantasy WRs in each of his three seasons as a Bronco.
The consistency from Denver’s WR1 and WR2 has been astounding. Demaryius Thomas is a virtual lock for a top-five finish and whoever lines up across from him has the inside track to be the WR7.
This model of consistency under Manning has also, in a way, extended itself to the running back position. Only it has been the annual uncertainty of which candidate will emerge as Denver’s lead back, coupled with the eventual failure of the consensus preseason fantasy darling to realize expectations.
The dawn of the Manning era was rife with hope and uncertainty. The offense, moving forward from the Tebow-led read-option, was going to look impossibly different.
Willis McGahee flourished (249/1,203/4 [12/51/1]) in the read-option with a 4.8 yards per carry, nearly a full yard higher than his career average. But McGahee would be 31 by midseason and was facing pressure from 2011 preseason starter Knowshon Moreno. It was Moreno’s 2011 opening night injury that enabled McGahee to return to fantasy relevance as Denver’s main back for the remainder of the season.
The plot thickened when the Broncos used their third round selection on San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman. Hillman’s skill set was different than McGahee and Moreno’s, and the rookie was considered a popular sleeper in the fantasy community. Analysts were split on which RB would best suit the new Manning-led offense. While McGahee’s ADP topped out at late fifth/early sixth, Hillman’s lingered around the 13th, and Moreno (who some beat writers thought might not make the roster) went undrafted.
McGahee maintained borderline RB1 production until a torn ACL suffered during Week 11 ended his season. While Hillman briefly assumed the job during Week 11, it was Moreno who came up huge during the fantasy playoffs (Week 14-16), averaging 139 total yards per game.
Those who invested in Hillman felt jilted when Moreno emerged as the starter toward the tail end of 2012. Moreno’s pass-blocking ability was placed at a premium over Hillman’s speed and quickness.
Despite his moderate success, Moreno apparently was not held in high regard by head coach John Fox and his coaching staff, a notion that was reaffirmed when Denver selected Wisconsin RB Montee Ball with the 58th pick. Moreno also was entering the final year of his rookie deal, and Denver showed no interest in re-signing him.
Ball, weighing 20 pounds heavier than Hillman, was considered to be a true three-down back. The groupthink conclusion was that Ball would be the starter, represented by his mid-late fifth round ADP. Meanwhile, Moreno’s ADP hovered around the ninth-10th, and Hillman went undrafted.
Ball could never get the wheels off the ground and Moreno, who once teetered on the edge of the roster bubble, churned out a top-five season (RB5) on the most proficient offense in the league.
Denver declined to re-sign Moreno.
Moreno finished the season as Denver’s lead back for consecutive years, but he was now in Miami. Ball had shown flashes during 2013 and the coaching staff continued grooming him to assume the lead role.
He opened training camp atop the depth chart ahead of Hillman and two undrafted free agents, Juwan Thompson and C.J. Anderson. Thompson and Anderson had similar builds, weighing 225 pounds, Thompson (5’11”) being 3 inches taller than Anderson (5’8″).
Ball, assuming the void left by Moreno as the lead back on the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense, skyrocketed up draft boards into the late first round. Hillman remained a late-round flier (ADP 14th-16th ), and both Thompson and Anderson went undrafted.
Confidence wavered when Ball underwent an appendectomy in August, forcing him to miss most of the preseason, but he was cleared prior to Week 1.
Ball struggled to find any type of traction, rushing for an anemic 172 yards (3.1 ypc) in the team’s first four games. An injury during Week 5 ostensibly ended his season, giving the 2012 preseason sleeper Hillman arguably his first legit shot at the job.
Hillman filled in well, gaining 484 yards on 100 touches and scoring four times from Weeks 5-9. He was on track for a breakout season until he too fell victim to injury early during Week 10.
C.J. Anderson wasted little time seizing the opportunity during that same Week 10 matchup at Oakland, taking a screen pass from Manning late in the second quarter and breaking it off for a highlight-reel, 51-yard touchdown.
In just half a season, Anderson finished as the RB11. Extrapolating his eight games as the lead back (seven as the starter), his 16-game numbers are gaudy.
We now find ourselves in present day, thinking we have a clear snapshot of Denver’s backfield situation (ah, the hubris!). There have been three different rushing leaders in three years (2012-McGahee, 2013-Moreno, 2014-Anderson). While there were no additions via the draft or free agency, an entire new offensive scheme arrives with head coach Gary Kubiak.
Unsurprisingly, it is Anderson that enters training camp as the RB1. His late-season flurry was impressive enough to earn him the edge, but Ball has been quoted saying he strives to regain the role he relinquished last year due to injury. Hillman also pines for another shot at what now allegedly belongs to Anderson.
The pain is still very real for those who invested in Ball last season. The Anderson hype serves them a cold reminder of last year’s grievances.
But what separates Anderson going into 2015 from Hillman in 2012 and Ball in 2013/2014 is that Anderson has seven starts under his belt. Hillman and Ball had a combined zero starts prior to those respective seasons.
Moreno and McGahee both were veteran starting RBs prior to becoming highly productive Bronco RB1s with Manning under center.
Maybe it is this simple yet subtle fact that eluded the fantasy masses:
Experience proves to be paramount.
The sample size is small, but the results are unmistakably impressive.
Fear not, C.J. Anderson will be Denver’s 2015 RB1. He is a bargain at his current mid-late second-round ADP. If he is available come your second-round pick, do not hesitate.
Adam Raines-Eastman is the architect of the Fantasy Marketplace™, a multi-dimensional arena that illustrates the ever changing landscape of the entire draft pool.
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