The Denver Broncos have a new-look ground game in 2014. Second-year pro Montee Ball has replaced last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno as the team’s lead back. Moreno was allowed to move on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins, and Ball could be an upgrade at the position.
Behind Ball, the Broncos have a bunch of question marks at the running back position.
Ronnie Hillman is listed as the second-string back on the roster right now. Hillman started in the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks as Ball was recovering from his recent appendectomy. He held onto the rock and scored a rushing touchdown for the Broncos in the first quarter.
C.J. Anderson has the ability to be a starter at this level. He worked with the first-team offense during Week 1 of the preseason, but Anderson was knocked out of the game with a concussion and did not return. The Broncos are being wisely cautious with Anderson as he returns, and he should be able to practice once he passes the NFL’s protocol for dealing with concussions.
The next back on the depth chart is undrafted free-agent rookie Juwan Thompson.
In the game against the Seahawks last week, Thompson put on a show. He finished the game as the team’s leading rusher with six carries for 59 yards, including a long run of 20 yards. Thompson’s 9.8 yards per carry represented the highest average for any Broncos player in the preseason (minimum five attempts).
Now, it looks as though Thompson could win the fourth job on the running back depth chart. Thompson has been getting second-team reps at training camp, and the Broncos are trying to give him as much experience as possible during the preseason.
Here’s a look back at Thompson’s college career, and a look forward to what he could be for the Broncos.
During his time at Duke, Thompson was noted for his versatility—on both sides of the ball. Thompson lined up at running back and fullback for the Blue Devils on offense, and he played safety his senior season on the defense.
During his final year in college, Thompson ran 64 times for 348 yards and one rushing touchdown. He also caught seven passes for 46 yards as a senior. Thompson also had eight solo tackles (13 total) while playing defense for the Blue Devils.
He finished out his college career with an 11-carry 92-yard performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Game against Texas A&M. That was the highest single-game rushing total of his career, and it showed off what he could be when toting the rock.
There’s nothing that Thompson can’t do. He can be a standout player as a runner, receiver out of the backfield, lead blocker or pass blocker.
Thompson has the size to grind down defenses between the tackles. His size gives him an advantage when taking on smaller defenders at the second level. Thompson can run through arm tackles with ease, and he has the ability to consistently move the chains in short-yardage situations.
His yards per carry increase as the game goes on. In the first half, Thompson averaged 4.97 yards per carry. In the second half (and overtime), Thompson averaged 5.94 yards per carry. His punishing style wears down an opponent over time.
He has soft hands to secure passes quickly as a receiver out of the backfield. Thompson does a good job of looking passes in, and he properly extends his arms to catch passes away from his body. Not only can he get open against linebackers on screen passes and wheel routes, Thompson also knows how to use his body to keep defenders away from the ball.
Pass protection might be his best asset.
I could make the argument that Juwan Thompson is the best RB in pass protection on the roster. #Broncos— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) August 2, 2014
Thompson has the size to stop oncoming pass-rushers. He protects the quarterback with great technique and a strong base.
He’s not the biggest back, nor the fastest (or quickest), but Thompson does everything a coach wants a back to do.
Training-Camp Practice Notes
Most every day in practice, Thompson stands out with his versatility. He’ll catch the ball cleanly out of the backfield, and he’s able to move swiftly after the catch.
In backs-on-backers, Thompson wins almost all the time. He can stonewall linebackers trying to get through to the quarterback.
His success in this drill has not gone unnoticed by the staff—or the defense. Thompson got into it last week with linebacker Steven Johnson during practice. The rookie is not going to back down from a challenge, and he’s not intimidated by an opponent (or teammate).
Thompson has a nose for the end zone, and he’ll be regularly seen plunging in near the goal line. He does a good job of staying low with his pads and driving his legs after contact. Thompson runs with proper lean and pad level, plus he’s always falling forward after the tackle to maximize his yards per carry.
Ball may have been out of action on Thursday night against the Seahawks, but he liked what he saw from Thompson.
“Juwan’s doing a great job. He’s one of those backs—he doesn’t talk much at all. He just keeps his nose in the playbook and works. I’m excited. Like I said, a lot of competition in that room.”
Thompson showed good power at the end of his 20-yard run against the Seahawks. When asked if he just wanted to hit people, Thompson was succinct with his answer.
“Pretty much. I’m not the shiftiest guy, but I can get out in open space and make someone miss here and there. I do like to make people feel the pain and make sure they don’t try to tackle me the next time, but that’s how the game is played.”
It looked as though Thompson was “in the zone” against the Seahawks. He admitted as much after the game.
“Yeah, I was feeling good. It took a long time for me to really get in the game. Even from a special teams standpoint, I had to wait until the second quarter. Just waiting around and then we had the lightning strike go off, and that took time out to stretch again. Just like coach says, you’ve got to be ready to go. There’s only one opportunity to play in the NFL.”
Thompson is looking more and more like a lock for the final roster.
Playing as a reserve runner on a part-time basis seems to be a plan for him this year. Thompson should also be able to contribute on special teams if need be.
Thompson was an all-purpose back in college for the Blue Devils, and that’s what he should be for the Broncos.
Thompson has worked hard to climb the depth chart.
He certainly provides the Broncos with a good all-around skill set, and Thompson gives the team valuable depth at the running back position. He’s unlikely to see the field that often on offense as a rookie.
His work ethic and desire to be the best pro he can be have made him a standout player so far in camp and in the preseason. If injuries hit on the depth chart above him, Thompson could continue to shine with a larger opportunity.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. College Football stats provided by CFBStats.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey