We probably should have known better.
All you ever hear is Devontae Booker, Devontae Booker, Devontae Booker.
When he was drafted, reports surfaced that the Broncos had a first-round grade on him. When the news emerged that Booker was going to miss the beginning of last season due to offseason wrist surgery, head coach Vance Joseph said he would’ve competed for the starting job in training camp. Even after Anderson posted his first career 1,000-yard season, the word circulating around was that the team still believed Booker has what it takes to be a starter.
With all that in mind—on top of the $4.5 million the team could save—the writing was certainly on the wall, but even with all of that information in hand, it still seemed like releasing running back C.J. Anderson, as the team did on Monday, would be a puzzling decision, at least before seeing how things fall in the draft.
Why? Well, because, despite all of the hype, Booker has yet to actually prove anything on the football field in the National Football League. During his two seasons in the NFL, the Utah product has yet to crack the top 30 in yards per carry. In 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 29th-best back in the league. In 2016, he ranked 58th, last place amongst tailbacks that saw at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps. Aside from a couple of eye-opening plays, he just hasn’t shown himself to be the guy the Broncos thought they were getting.
Now, this is not to say that Devontae Booker can’t come around in year three, the first year in which he will get a full offseason to prepare for the year ahead, but it does make it very easy to label the release of C.J. Anderson as a high-stakes gamble.
“In Denver, we want to play great defense all the time and run the football,” Joseph said at the NFL Combine in February. “I thought we had that last year. We had our first 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in a long time in Denver. That part I thought we had. We turned the ball over at a rapid rate. That was obviously our major issue.”
Now, after making a move they believed would sure up that major issue, signing Case Keenum, and helping fill one of the holes in their defense by trading for Su’a Cravens, the Broncos’ desired identity now has a new question mark next to it. And there’s a good chance that won’t change before the season starts.
Sure, there are vets like Demarco Murray (30) and Alfred Morris (29) who could bring a more established presence to the running backs room for less than what Anderson was set to make, but it is expected that the team will turn to the draft—where a deep tailback class awaits—to fill in the gap in their backfield. On the bright side, the draft is loaded with players in the first three rounds that could project to be studs. Even if Denver secures one of those players, though, they would likely be heading into the season with a backfield consisting of a third-year player that is still unestablished, a second-year player who didn’t get an offensive touch until Week 17 of 2017 and a rookie yet to play in an NFL game.
No matter how you slice it, that’s scary for a team that believes running the football is a big part of who they are going to be.
This move from John Elway—while money-saving in nature—is a big gamble. A gamble on the potential of Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson, a gamble on new running backs coach Curtis Modkins and his ability to develop players, a gamble on his own ability to identify talent in the draft, a gamble on that draft falling in Denver’s favor and a gamble on C.J. Anderson not being that valuable to what this team is trying to do.
Nobody ever accused Elway of being conservative. $4.5 million on black, please.