2016 Broncos Season: Player Profile, CJ Anderson, a Love Story

I am a life-long Denver Broncos fan. I love the team and its players, always have. So I tend to be a fierce defender of those I think are getting a raw deal and, at times, a harsher critic than most. Some of it is rooted in outright fandom. A lot of it is rooted in watching every single play – pre-season, season and post-season – of every single Broncos game. Often, it comes from watching it more than once.

That feeds into my belief in CJ Anderson, who I think should be a Top 15 running back, and could be a Top 10 back. It’s because I’ve seen what he can do, and I have faith he can do it in this Gary Kubiak offense. But I’d also argue he’s the most important player on the Broncos’ roster.

A Grim 2015:
Sure, the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, and when you win nothing else matters and no one really wants to hear about your complaints. That’s fair. But for as historically great the Broncos defense was in 2015, their offense was incredibly mediocre. And that isn’t just a fan’s take, that’s statistics.

When you think of Peyton Manning, you think of a high flying offense. But Denver’s offense in 2015 was merely pedestrian. The Broncos were minus 4 in turnover differential, tied for 19 in that category, despite having the No. 1 defense. That’s due in large part to Manning and Osweiler combining for 23 interceptions to go along with eight lost fumbles.

Denver finished 16 overall in offense, 14 in passing offense, 17 in rushing offense and 19 in first downs. That’s a far cry from Manning’s previous seasons in Denver, where the Broncos finished fourth (2012), first (2013) and fourth (2014) in total offense.

With a combination of Mark Sanchez, Trevor Seimian and/or Paxton Lynch at the helm in 2016, the running game will be more important than ever. And Anderson, who the Broncos retained for four years and $18 million, is the man the Broncos are counting on to deliver.

I think he can, and here’s why:

An auspicious beginning:
I first saw Anderson on August 8, 2013. It was the Broncos’ first pre-season game in San Francisco against a stout 49ers team. It was an awful game to watch. The Broncos won 10-6, but the score hardly mattered. As is the case with first pre-season games, you’re simply scouting players.

Anderson was an undrafted free agent out of Cal. The Broncos had highly drafted Montee Ball on the roster, the intriguing (at the time) Ronnie Hillman and the veteran Knowshon Moreno. No one expected much from Anderson. But I fell in love when I saw him run.

His stat line that night wasn’t incredible – he carried the ball 15 times for 69 yards. But in an ugly game where no yards came easy, it was his power and swagger that won me over. But Anderson was injured in that game, and I wondered if the Broncos would keep him.

They did, but he didn’t have much of an impact during that Super Bowl season.

The following season, in 2014, Anderson entered a crowded competition. Ball was the projected starter, Hillman was a coach favorite and Anderson was fighting to stay on the depth chart. He had an OK pre-season, but I waited for him to get his chance.

Ball started the season for Denver, but was ineffective and soon injured. Hillman took his place and did well. But during a game against the Raiders on November 9, 2014, Anderson got his chance.

The Broncos struggled in the game, and trailed the Raiders 10-6 near the end of the second quarter. The team looked flat. Then Manning dumped off a short pass to Anderson, who went 51 yards for a touchdown. Like that the Broncos were up 13-10 with a little over two minutes left in the first half. The Broncos never looked back, winning 41-17.

Anderson never looked back either, starting seven games and going for 849 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, while catching 34 passes for 324 yards and two more TDs. He earned a Pro Bowl bid and was by far the best Broncos’ offensive player in a 24-13 playoff loss to the Colts.

Hype Bubble Burst:
Going into 2015, Anderson’s hype was through the roof. A coaching change to Kubiak and his run-friendly system combined with his performance in 2014 had many believing he’d be a Top 10 back, and his average draft position backed that up. But the season never materialized.

What got lost is Anderson injured his foot in the pre-season and struggled with burst to begin the 2015 season. That combined with shaky quarterback play and a mediocre offensive line, there weren’t many holes. Soon, Anderson found himself playing a complimentary role to Hillman.

But as the season went on, Anderson got stronger and the burst returned. By the end of the season, and especially in the playoffs, he looked like the back everyone expected in September. Anderson exploded on November 29 against the New England Patriots, going for 113 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carriers. He finished the regular season with just 720 yards rushing and five touchdowns, but in three playoff games Anderson went for 234 yards and two scores, including 90 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

The flashes of brilliance he showed in 2015 were enough for the Broncos to pony up big to keep him, and the reasons they’ve put so much faith in him going forward.

Realistic Expectations:
Anderson has said all the right things this off-season. He reported to camp trimmed down at 217 pounds and seems poised to pick up where he left off in the Super Bowl. And that’s what the Broncos want and expect, too.

Anderson was, arguably, the best back in the NFL down the stretch in 2014, and he showed flashes of that form in 2015. The question is can he sustain it for a full season in 2016? With highly touted rookie Devontae Booker and Hillman waiting in the wings, the pressure is on.

But I think Anderson can take it. Since I saw him dragging bodies down the field in San Francisco that August night in 2013, I’ve been an Anderson believer. I think 2016 is the year he makes everyone else a believer, too.


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