Preseason game will highlight running backs race


Lining up beside or behind quarterback Case Keenum during the Broncos’ first four plays of 11-on-11 work at practice Thursday were Devontae Booker, Royce Freeman, De’Angelo Henderson and Phillip Lindsay.

Receiving handoffs or catching passes from third-string quarterback Chad Kelly later in practice were Freeman, Henderson, Lindsay and David Williams.

That snapshot — everybody getting a chance — illustrates how in-flux the Broncos’ running back situation is after 11 training camp sessions. The fight to start (Booker, Freeman), be a part of the rotation (Henderson) or make the team (Lindsay, Williams) is the biggest storyline entering Saturday’s preseason opener against Minnesota.

“It’s all a big competition,” Booker said. “It brings out the best in all of us. To just work our butts off and push each other, we’re going to be a great group.”

Great for the Broncos would be exiting August confident they have a group of backs capable of replacing C.J. Anderson, whose 1,007 rushing yards were ninth in the NFL last year but not enough to keep him around. He was cut during the offseason and signed with Carolina.

The tailback derby is one of many story lines for the Broncos. Keenum will get two possessions of work Saturday against the team he helped lead to the NFC Championship game in January. Fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb will start at strongside linebacker. Rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton will attempt to carry over his eye-popping practices to a game. And backup quarterback Paxton Lynch will look to erase a tumultuous two weeks.

“In all three phases, it’s going to be a challenge for us,” coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s going to be fun to watch how we match their intensity.”

Joseph said Booker “is the lead guy, along with (Freeman),” at running back and they will split time with the first-team offense.

Just that little nugget is telling, essentially revealing it is a two-player contest.

Booker has received the initial first-team snaps throughout camp. Joseph’s strategy in giving Booker a chance instead of immediately installing Freeman, a rookie, could be based on Booker’s experience. Booker has 253 career rushing attempts — the other four tailbacks have a combined seven attempts (all by Henderson).

“(Booker) has good vision and the more experience he gets and the more touches he gets, he’s going to be really good,” inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “And we can’t forget about De’Angelo — he’s explosive, he’s quick, he’s fast.”

Last August, Freeman, Lindsay and Williams were playing for Oregon, Colorado and Arkansas, respectively.

Despite Denver finishing 12th in rushing last year (115.8 yards per game), general manager John Elway overhauled the running back room. Freeman (Round 3) and Williams (Round 7) were drafted and Lindsay was signed as an undrafted free agent. The goal was to create a by-committee system that could withstand injuries. The tailbacks lack a track record, but have potential.

“We’ve got a lot of good, young running backs that I think can all help us,” Elway said on the eve of camp.

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