ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last three running backs drafted by the Broncos have come in the first three rounds, but the overwhelming majority of Denver's drafted running backs have come in the later rounds.
With little value at the top of the draft class, it's the collection running backs likely available from Rounds 4 to 7 where we'll focus, since that seems to be the most likely range at which Denver would add a rookie runner to its stable.
Some of the more intriguing prospects worth monitoring in this range include:
Dri Archer, Kent State: His 4.26-second 40 time at the Combine wowed onlookers, but at 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds, it would have been worrisome if he was not at or near the top of the 40 rankings during the workout. He projects as a returner and potential receiver, and needs to get the ball in space to be effective. But if properly used, he can be an asset.
George Atkinson III, Notre Dame: Atkinson turned pro after a season that was quieter than expected and ended with a suspension that kept him out of the Fighting Irish's bowl game. Atkinson enhanced his prospects with a 4.48-second 40 time at the Combine last month, faster than all but one of the other 18 running backs who ran and weighed at least 210 pounds (Atkinson is 218).
Kapri Bibbs, Colorado State: By shaving a tenth of a second off his 40-yard time at the Combine during his Pro Day workout, Bibbs eased the concerns that arose, although a toe injury in recent weeks must be taken into account. The other concerns about Bibbs center around his wildly inconsistent per-game production and his ability to find enough speed to burst into the open field at the next level. But the 5-foot-9, 212-pounder runs with power and balance, and his game speed is better than what he clocks "in underwear," in the parlance of Head Coach John Fox.
Tyler Gaffney, Stanford: He has impressive speed (4.49 40 at the Combine) for his size (5-foot-11, 220 pounds), and helped carry Stanford to the Rose Bowl with a 1,709-yard, 21-touchdown season in which he ran for 21 touchdowns. He wasn't used much as a receiver (15 catches), and needs refinement in that part of his game. Last year was his first as the Cardinal's primary running back, so even though he racked up 345 touches in 2013, he doesn't have many full-contact miles on his odometer, so he could project better over the long term. He's also an excellent athlete (he spent 2012 playing in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor-league system), holds up well over the course of the game and has the intelligence you expect from a Stanford alumnus.
Kyle Harbridge, St. Francis (Pa.): A solid Pro Day workout (22 bench-press reps, average time of 4.54 seconds in the 40) cemented a place at the end of the draft. The 5-foot-9, 204-pounder doesn't project as an every-down back in the NFL, in spite of scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging 6.0 yards a carry en route to a 1,692-yard season last year. But Harbridge is adept at catching passes out of the backfield and brings brings kickoff-return experience; he averaged 26.3 yards a return last year.
Storm Johnson, Central Florida: His film is better than his workout numbers, and his middling 4.6 40 time at the Combine was a bit disappointing, although he managed to shave .03 of a second off of it while adding nine pounds between the Combine and his Pro Day this week. What doesn't show up in the workouts is his above-average vision, his ability to wait for blocks to open up without dancing and his ability to exploit a safety or linebacker who doesn't take a perfect angle to burst into and beyond the second level.
Henry Josey, Missouri: His was arguably the best comeback story in college football last year, as he led Mizzou to the SEC's Eastern Division crown with 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns, just two years after tearing an ACL, MCL and patellar tendon. Another year at Mizzou to remove himself might have increased his draft stock, but after overcoming such a severe injury, one can't blame the speedy 194-pounder for taking his chance now.
Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern: How will he run from the tailback spot? That's the biggest question that dogs the option quarterback, who racked up a 6.5-yards-per-carry average and 1,050 yards last year. His speed his unquestioned (4.41 seconds in the 40 at the Combine), and his quickness was evident in the three-cone drill (6.83 seconds, third-fastest among running backs) Given the potential issues in the position shift, he'll have much more adjustment than most runners. He'll have to learn to play from deep in the backfield, to run between the tackles, and to pass protect. But he possesses excellent vision, quick feet and a stratospheric ceiling. You don't take players like this on the first two days, but when you get to the third day, you make this type of bold gamble, and it can work at many positions (see Thomas, Julius).
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon: At 174 pounds, he's a running back in the vein of Dexter McCluster, so to get proper value from him, he'll have to be used on returns, lining up at receiver and in space out of the backfield. An ankle injury last year hindered his production, but in 2012, he scored on the ground, via a reception and on punt and kickoff returns, and he finished with career averages of 17.1 yards on punt returns and 24.8 on kickoffs, with five touchdowns on 92 career returns. Thomas is probably the most electric running back in the class -- even if he can't be classified as a true running back.
Terrance West, Towson: West single-handedly carried the Tigers to the FCS national championship game last year, using the extended season (16 games) to set FCS single-season records for rushing yardage (2,509) and touchdowns (41). At 225 pounds and with the ability to shed tacklers, West is a bruiser between the tackles who runs with urgency. He has good footwork, but sometimes uses this to dance and dart, instead of hitting the hole quickly. If he can be cured of this habit, he should be a sturdy back who can have a solid career.
James White, Wisconsin: After relieving
James Wilder Jr., Florida State: The son of the Buccaneers' all-time leading rusher is physical and doesn't dodge contact -- just like his old man back in the 1980's -- even though he dealt with injuries (including a concussion) last year. Although he stands 6-foot-3, Wilder does a good job avoiding falling into the trap of running upright too often. But his Combine workout was a disappointment; at 232 pounds, he needed to put up more than 18 bench-press repetitions, and his 4.86-second 40 time was stunningly slow, although he cut 0.21 seconds off that time when he ran at FSU's Pro Day.
Andre Williams, Boston College: There's no questioning Williams' productivity, and the big (230-pound) back's 4.56-second 40 time offers some hope that he can mix some speed with his bruising style. Assuming he has recovered from the shoulder problems that kept him out of the Senior Bowl, there's little question about his ability to plow through a crowd and break through contact. He also is a capable blocker -- as you'd expect for someone his size. But he is untested at catching passes out of the backfield -- unfathomably, he had no receptions last year, but carried the football a whopping 355 times in 13 games (27.3 times per game).
Damien Williams, Oklahoma: Where do we begin? Let's start with the red flags: he was kicked off the Sooners roster in November for a violation of team rules -- which reportedly included failed drug tests -- and had missed a game to suspension earlier last year. But on the positive side, he's an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield (34 receptions for 320 yards last year), is dangerous in the open field -- although he isn't known for sharp cuts in traffic -- and can block effectively. He also had the highest "Speed Score" at the Combine, per Football Outsiders, which measures speed relative to weight; the 225-pounder ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash.
Others of note from the late round and undrafted range: Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky; Alfred Blue, LSU; Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State; Tim Flanders, Sam Houston State; David Fluellen, Toledo; Marion Grice, Arizona State; Rajion Neal, Tennessee; LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State; Senorise Perry, Louisville; Silas Redd, USC; James Sims, Kansas; Jerome Smith, Syracuse; Marcus Shaw, South Florida; Lorenzo Taliaferro, Coastal Carolina; Damien Thigpen, UCLA.