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Broncos training camp burning question: Who will carry the load at running back?


By the time the preseason ends, there will be a No. 1 running back. But that doesn't necessarily mean the first-teamer will carry the bulk of the workload.

Three times in the last six seasons, the Broncos running back who posted the most total offensive touches did not even amass a plurality among players at the position. The most recent such back was Devontae Booker, who in 2016 replaced the injured C.J. Anderson at midseason and accounted for 47.8 percent of the total receptions and carries by Broncos running backs that year.

"What you want from your room is obviously a lead back, but you need two or three backs to make it through an entire season," Head Coach Vance Joseph said during OTAs. "That won't change as far as that room. You want more than one guy to be a contributor there."

Booker's experience gives him a head start.

"He's our most experienced back now. I've been impressed with his football I.Q. as a third-down back and how he's got the ball," Joseph said. "Booker's definitely going to be in that mix. He's our most experienced back so I'm expecting big things from Booker."

But "big things" could also leave room for others, including rookies Royce Freeman, Phillip Lindsay and Dave Williams and second-year back De'Angelo Henderson, who was a summertime standout last year before coughing up a pair of preseason fumbles. Henderson re-emerged late last season, and his 29-yard touchdown catch-and-run in Week 17 was tied for the longest reception by a Broncos running back last year.

Freeman, a third-round pick, demonstrated good vision on his cutbacks during OTAs, reading the development of blocks well. 

The liberal rotation of running backs during OTAs gives Joseph and Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave a chance to evaluate the backs in a variety of scenarios. The coaches saw enough to like in their group to stand pat over the last few weeks and not add a veteran.

"We're very comfortable with the group. It's a young group," Musgrave said during minicamp. "We're definitely young at running back. But those guys are really developing and we're looking forward to them making a big contribution."

Having a unique skill set and template is one way to distinguish yourself in a crowded room. That's where undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay can come into play. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound product of South High School in Denver and the University of Colorado was adept at making plays in the open field during OTAs. If he can carry over his solid work from OTAs into full-pads drills during training camp, he brings the Broncos an explosive short-area target who also has the willingness to dart between the tackles when necessary.

"He'll be a good scatback," inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "I think he'll be a great third-down back. He's quick. I think he can create some matchup problems."

And if the Broncos go for the committee approach by choice, rather than the chance of injury, the entire group can create problems, something that opponents of the Eagles learned last year.

Recent history shows that your offense can flourish without a bell-cow back. There was a time when such a runner increased your chances of that season's ultimate success -- but those days predate smartphones.

In the 23 non-strike seasons from 1978 through 2001, 34 of the 46 teams to make the Super Bowl had a runner that posted at least 250 attempts. If you include the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons and pro-rate the carries to a 16-game projection, that rate goes to 37 of 50.

Since 2002, just 10 of 32 Super Bowl teams had a runner who carried the football 250 or more times in a season, with only two in the last five seasons -- Seattle's Marshawn Lynch in 2013 (301 attempts) and New England's LeGarrette Blount (299 attempts in 2016).

There were plenty of workhorse backs in the first decade of this century -- an average of 15.3 runners per year from 2000 through 2009 carried the football 250 or more times -- a 26-percent increase over the 1990s, which saw an average of 12.1 250-carry runners per year. In the 1980s, that average was 10.8.

But in the 2000s, just eight of the 250-carry runners powered their team to a Super Bowl appearance -- a success rate of 5.2 percent. In the 1990s, that was 12.4 percent, as 15 of the 20 Super Bowl participants had a workhorse back. The trend has continued in the 2010s, as just five of the 80 250-carry backs played in the Super Bowl (6.3 percent). 

Over the decades, the percentage of Super Bowl teams with a 250-carry back has dropped from 75 percent in the 1990s to 40 percent in the 2000s to 31.3 percent in the 2010s. And last year, neither of the two Super Bowl participants had a running back hit 200 carries.

A running-back-by-committee arrangement may not merely be practical or a product of necessity. It may represent the Broncos' best chance at an effective ground attack with the variety of runners they possess.

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