Broncos playing rushin' roulette

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Broncos playing rushin' roulette
Dayne, Bell, Cobbs - or an unknown - out to be top back

By Lee Rasizer, Rocky Mountain News
April 13, 2006

Ron Dayne isn't sure he has a leg up in the race to become the next starting running back for the Denver Broncos. But even before arriving this month for the team's off-season conditioning program, he was doing enough squats, leg presses and lunges to make sure it wasn't much of a stretch should that scenario play out.

"You can't run without your legs, so I work hardest on them," he said. "Even when I'm tired, I'm going to get a workout on my legs."

Yet the past several years, Dayne has rested his lower body more than he would like when it matters most - on game day.

In six seasons, including his first in 2005 with the Broncos, Dayne has 638 carries for 2,337 yards while starting only 14 games.

That experience is why Dayne is sounding a cautious note, even after the Broncos released Mike Anderson, seemingly putting Dayne, the all-time leading rusher in NCAA Division I-A, in line for the carries Anderson left behind.

Tatum Bell still is around, and Dayne has watched as practice- squad player Cedric Cobbs made big strides last season to enter the competition.

The biggest wild card, though, might not yet be on the roster.

With the Nos. 15 and 22 picks in the first round of the draft, the Broncos might have a unique opportunity to acquire the kind of workhorse runner coach Mike Shanahan has said he prefers.

Reggie Bush of Southern California is a near lock to go No. 1 overall and is a pipe dream for the Broncos.

But Bush's college teammate, Denver native LenDale White, Laurence Maroney of Minnesota or De- Angelo Williams of Memphis could be available for the taking.

Whether other needs, such as receiver, tight end or defensive line, will supersede the Broncos' desire for a franchise-type prospect remains to be seen. Regardless, there likely will be someone else to contend with for the returning backfield trio.

"I don't care if you're drafting Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Quentin Griffin, Tatum," general manager Ted Sundquist said at the NFL scouting combine. "You just go back. Ahmad Galloway. Some guys didn't make it, but there's always someone getting rolled into the mix."

Only twice during Shanahan's 11 years as coach, in 1997 and 2001, has the team failed to draft a running back. But Bell, at No. 41, was the highest-numbered selection. The Broncos' normal route is midround picks suited to their downhill, one- cut style instead of going for the high pick.

And usually, whomever they select is worked in slowly. Even Bell and Clinton Portis, who joined Terrell Davis as the only franchise backs drafted by the Broncos since 1995, didn't immediately start by carrying 20 or more times a game.

Incumbents are ready

Bell still is awaiting his opportunity for full-time duty despite a productive 921-yard season in 2005 that demonstrated his big-play ability.

Cobbs simply is eager for an opportunity.

"For them to select someone at running back really doesn't bother me because I know the running back they select doesn't know half of what the running backs here know that have been in the league awhile," said Cobbs, whom the Broncos considered picking in the third round in 2004 before taking Bell one round earlier. "I found out the hard way that the league is (about) experience. And you just can't come in and think you're going to dominate if you don't know the game of football."

Cobbs, who played for Arkansas, appeared in three games with the New England Patriots as a rookie in 2004, then was cut during training camp last year after injuring a leg before the first preseason game.

The Broncos picked him up and put him on the practice squad, where he learned the scheme and impressed coaches with his acceleration and quickness.

Such initial inactivity was even more shocking, and longer lasting, for Dayne, who was the first-round pick (No. 15 overall) of the New York Giants in 2000 but fell into a backup role to Tiki Barber.

Now, Dayne is seeing competition from a different perspective, with the belief he has a legitimate opportunity for a large workload, in a system suited to his talents, for a staff he believes is in his corner.

"I just want to stay modest," said Dayne, who carried 53 times for 270 yards last season in spot duty. "But it's mine, Tatum and Ced's job to lose right now."

Even if the Broncos pick a back high in the draft, he said, "It'd be a shame if one of us wasn't one of the guys out there on the field, especially with us being here and knowing the system rather than having somebody else come in and take that."

In 2005, Anderson was the Broncos' "thunder" inside the tackles and Bell the quick-hitting "lightning" outside as Denver put together a 13-3 regular season and fell one victory short of the Super Bowl. The running game's production was merely business as usual.

Last season, the Broncos rolled up 2,539 yards, the second-best total in franchise history, and finished 7 yards behind the league-leading Atlanta Falcons.

It was the ninth time under Shanahan the Broncos have finished in the top five in rushing. It also marked the eighth time in his tenure the team has cracked the 2,000-yard mark.

Even with such consistency, the backfield continues to evolve.

With Dayne considered a younger option to Anderson and owning a similar skill set, it was Anderson who was released. He eventually signed with the Baltimore Ravens.

Dayne re-signed with the Broncos as an unrestricted free agent, getting a three-year, $3.29 million contract that voids after two seasons if he reaches a combined 2,500 yards.

Dayne's modesty aside, his quick feet and ability to make decisive cuts between the tackles for positive yardage make him the current favorite to do the heavy lifting in the backfield.

Though Bell has unquestioned speed, he must shake the perception he's a specialist and not suited for full-time duty. But he will have a role. Cobbs is the unknown factor.

'No drop-off'

"I've worked with them, so I know what they've got, and I wish the best for all those guys," Anderson said in assessing the current candidates. "And I expect no drop-off whatsoever."

Anderson added that, despite Shanahan's public proclamation in January that "everybody would like that franchise back . . . that you could give the ball 30 times a game," the Broncos might continue with a two-pronged attack because it worked so well last season.

"I think they'll go after the same blueprint we had last year because when you look at it, it worked," Anderson said. "We had a lot of success and put up huge numbers. And for the most part, it kept our whole entire backfield pretty healthy through the season."

And leaguewide, the signature back generally has become a dying breed the past few seasons. Only 11 backs averaged more than 20 carries in 2005, down from 12 in 2004 and 13 in 2003.

But among the current group, Dayne could be best suited for such a workload, if needed, even without much activity as a pro. For Wisconsin, he became the all-time Division I-A rushing leader by carrying no fewer than 263 times during his four seasons.

"Once you've done it, you never forget it," Anderson said.

But the focus now for Dayne, Bell and Cobbs isn't the potential for a future workload, it's getting in shape for the looming competition.

Dayne is concentrating on working on his wind and distance to supplement his weight-room work.

Bell apparently is so focused, he has ducked the media for two weeks.

Cobbs is making sure his legs are at full strength.

And if some hotshot enters the fray, Dayne said, "We'll just have fun and battle. Just like we did when Mike (Anderson) was here."

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/nfl/article/0,2777,DRMN_23918_4618036,00.html
 
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