With the Pieces in Place, Broncos' Running Game Puzzle Becoming Clear

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With the Pieces in Place, Broncos' Running Game Puzzle Becoming Clear

The waiting is finally over. The NFL draft, and all its anticipation, predictions, and mocks is done and gone for another 350-some odd days.

Now, the real predictions can begin. Most teams will soon be opening mandatory minicamps, and the new rookies will begin their NFL careers. 

The Denver Broncos had an interesting draft. It surprised many. It confused others. But in the end, the Broncos added many of the pieces that they will need to bounce back from a disappointing end to 2008.

One of the key factors for this resurrection (an AFC West title) will be the running game.

The historically strong unit ranked 12th in the NFL in yards per game in 2008, with 116.4 yards per game. While this is not a shabby number by any means, this year's backfield will have more pressure to excel, the main reason being Jay Cutler's departure from Denver.

While projected starting quarterback Kyle Orton is a highly competent player, he is not Jay Cutler, and isn't expected to be. He can make most of the throws Cutler could, but not with such ease.

As the football adage goes, "Use the run to set up the pass."

The Broncos will undoubtedly be doing a lot of this in 2009. With that said, on to the predictions.

The Broncos have six running backs and two fullbacks on the active roster going into minicamp. They are J.J. Arrington, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Ryan Torain, Knowshon Moreno, and Kestahn Moore. The fullbacks are Peyton Hillis and Spencer Larsen.

As the 2008 team proved, there is never a surplus of running backs that is too large. At some points in 2008, it seemed a back would be placed on IR every week.

This offseason has seen a full "renovation" at the running back position. The only returning players are Torain, Hillis, and Larsen.

Gone are Selvin Young, Andre Hall, Michael Pittman, Tatum Bell, P.J. Pope, and any others seen lining up behind Cutler last season.

The team signed Buckhalter from the Eagles, Arrington from the Cardinals, and Jordan from the Patriots. They drafted Moreno with the 12th pick in the first round, and added Moore as a college free agent last week.

This group has players with different specialties, and it is likely that four or five of the current six players will be on the week one roster.

As of now, first round draft pick Knowshon Moreno has a good chance to be #1 on the depth chart for week one. He will likely be followed by Buckhalter, Arrington, and Jordan.

The jury is still out on Ryan Torain. The fifth round pick in 2008 injured himself in training camp and missed the first eight weeks of the season.

He got his first start in week ten, but tore his ACL in the second quarter of that game and was placed on IR.

In his quarter-and-a-half of work, he rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown, and looked to be a promising young player.

However, the addition of Moreno and veterans like Buckhalter and Arrington could push him off the initial depth chart unless he really impresses Coach McDaniels in training camp. 

J.J. Arrington began to make a name for himself during the Arizona Cardinals' unlikely Super Bowl run in 2008. He spent the majority of his game time as a third-down back, but also established himself as a very good receiver out of the backfield.

Arrington rushed 31 times for 187 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 29 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown. He is expected to be a situational back who could come in for shotgun formations.

LaMont Jordan is a journeyman who has spent time with the Jets, Raiders, and Patriots. He had 80 carries for 363 yards and four touchdowns in 2008.

He is only 5-foot-10 tall, but weighs 230 pounds and is a power rusher. He could be used in goal-line and short-yardage situations for McDaniels's offense.

Correll Buckhalter rounds out the new group of veterans, and will be the primary backup to the starter. He has been a solid backup in eight seasons for the Eagles, stepping in whenever All-Pro Brian Westbrook was injured.

Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos' first pick of the 2009 draft will be going into 2009 with high expectations.

He earned offensive MVP honors from a Georgia team that also featured #1 pick Matthew Stafford, and rushed for over 1,400 yards in 13 games for the Bulldogs.

Before the draft, I previewed the impact Moreno might have on this team if drafted. I said that "The one thing this group does not have is a true star back. A guy who will be the starter every week and who will definitively lead the team in overall rushing."

This is exactly what Knowshon is expected to be for the Broncos. Barring any injury, it is very plausible that #27 on the Broncos will be the AFC West's second most feared running back (LaDainian Tomlinson is still #1) by the season's midpoint.

He has all the elusiveness, versatility, and intelligence that is required to be an every-down back. It is even noted that he's a better receiver out of the backfield than he gets credit for, and will be a valuable weapon for McDaniels on the field. 

In the locker room, there is no shortage of praise for this young man. He was a team captain at Georgia, and according to scouting reports, is an "Extreme competitor who can put the team on his shoulders. Wants the ball with the game on the line."

Moreno looks to be a smart draft choice in every sense, and should quickly make his way into the top running backs in the NFL.

In his first season, he will be eased into his duties with a strong group backing him up. As I mentioned earlier, J.J. Arrington will spell Moreno in third-down situations and Jordan on the goal line.

Peyton Hillis will be slicing a path through the opposing defense as the primary fullback, and the stellar offensive line of 2008 is returning all five starters.

Running backs coach Bobby Turner was one of two holdovers from the Shanahan era, and he will undoubtedly be a mentor to Knowshon, as he was to Terrell Davis in the late 1990's.

All signs point to a revived Broncos rushing attack in 2009, one that will once again make Denver one of the most feared running teams in the NFL.

Preliminary Predictions:

Moreno (Starter) 1,000-1,200 yards rushing, 8-10 touchdowns, 30-40 catches for 300 yards.

Buckhalter (Primary Backup) 250-300 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns, 10 catches for 100 yards.

Arrington (3rd Down) 150-200 yards rushing, 1 touchdown, 20 catches for 250 yards.

Jordan (Goal Line/Short Yardage) 200-250 yards rushing, 4-5 touchdowns, 5 catches for 40-60 yards.

Hillis (Fullback) 100-150 yards rushing, 2-3 touchdowns.

Torain (Situational Back) 200-250 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns.

Team rushing totals: About 2,200 yards, 22 touchdowns.

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