Why C.J. Anderson Is Clearly the Best Running Back for the Denver Broncos

Can C.J. Anderson hold onto the lead running back job in Denver with Gary Kubiak taking over?

Sometimes being overlooked can have its advantages.

For running backs playing next to Peyton Manning, this is exactly the case. Each week opposing coordinators and defenses are forced to dedicate the majority of their preparation and game planning to stopping the future Hall of Fame signal-caller. With all the attention commanded by Peyton, little bandwidth is left to worry about the players lining up behind him. As a result, the running backs on Peyton's teams are often treated as mere afterthoughts. And come Sundays, these oversights allow these backs to then run wild on the unprepared opposing defenses they face.

It's for these exact reasons why playing running back under Peyton Manning is so advantageous, and why this position has recently garnered so much attention by NFL fans around the league.

Many wonder whether any of the running backs on the Broncos' roster can gain enough separation from the team's three-headed committee to truly benefit from playing next to Peyton. Others wonder whether the pass-heavy attack of the Broncos will render the Broncos running backs irrelevant.

Those arguing against a lead back emerging in Denver question C.J. Anderson's ability to hold onto the starting job with Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball both looming behind him on the depth chart. Others argue that, even if C.J. Anderson does retain the starting job, as a member of the Broncos pass-first offense, his workload -- and consequently his production -- will be too small to be of any significance.

Many of these claims stand on very shaky foundations, and I'm here to refute many of the assumptions and misconceptions behind these arguments. In contrast to these narratives, I will instead present three arguments as to why C.J. Anderson will be the clear lead back for the Broncos in 2015 and why he has a strong chance of ending the season as a top-10 running back in fantasy football.

C.J. Anderson Is the Best Running Back on the Broncos

The lead back of any Peyton Manning led team is asked to do three things, and do them well. They must be able to:

1. Rush the ball effectively, without fumbling.
2. Catch the ball out of the backfield.
3. And above all else, protect Peyton when called into pass-blocking duty.

In arguing against C.J. Anderson as a viable lead back for the Broncos, many naysayers seem to overlook the fact that last season, Anderson was the Broncos most effective running back in all three of these aspects.

Production on the Ground
Looking at last season's output using both traditional and advanced metrics, it's clear that C.J. Anderson was far and away the most productive back for the Broncos. Anderson nearly doubled Hillman's output on the ground (849 rushing yards to 434), despite only getting two more starts over his backfield mate. His touchdown total also doubled that of Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman combined.

C.J. Anderson1571798494.78
Montee Ball53551723.11
Ronnie Hillman851054344.13

Just looking at these traditional metrics, it's obvious that Anderson made the most of his carries to lead the team in rushing last season.

But it gets even more impressive when we look at C.J. Anderson's advanced numbers. Using our in-house metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), the magnitude of Anderson's contributions to this offense really comes to light. The beauty of NEP is it accurately measures the significance of a player's output on a situational basis. Simply put, not all runs are created equally; a five-yard run on 3rd-and-1 is worth more than a five-yard run on 3rd-and-15. One results in a first down and keeps a drive alive, while the other does not and our NEP metric accounts for this.

What is insane about Anderson's production last season is that, despite only starting seven games, he was ranked sixth in the league amongst all running backs in Rushing NEP.

NameRushing NEPRushing NEP per Rush
C.J. Anderson17.930.10
Montee Ball-8.08-0.15
Ronnie Hillman-1.14-0.01

Beyond this, his 0.10 Rushing NEP per carry ranks second behind only Jamaal Charles, and puts him in a tie with Marshawn Lynch. Anderson was not only more productive than his fellow backfield mates, he was also more productive than almost everyone else in the league in very limited playing time.

Beyond this productivity, Anderson has demonstrated an ability to hang onto the football, a trait highly coveted on Manning-led offenses. In 213 total touches last season, C.J. Anderson failed to fumble the ball even once. Contrast this with Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, who both suffered a fumble on just 127 and 64 total touches, respectively.

Third-Down Back Skill Set
If you hope to survive as a Peyton Manning running back, you better be able to catch the ball out of the backfield. And you better be able to pass block to keep your quarterback upright and healthy.

When looking at the numbers from last season, it's also evident that C.J. Anderson was the best receiving option out of the backfield for the Broncos.

Full NameRecYdsAvgTD
C.J. Anderson343249.52
Montee Ball9626.90
Ronnie Hillman211396.61

He accounted for over 60% of the receiving yards by running backs last season despite starting fewer than half of the games for the Broncos. His 34 receptions were also more than that for Ball and Hillman combined. Again, these comparisons also extend to advanced metrics.

Full NameReception NEPCatch Rate
C.J. Anderson27.1977.27%
Montee Ball0.8169.23%
Ronnie Hillman8.4561.76%

Despite receiving three less targets, his Reception NEP -- expected points added on catches -- tripled that of Ball and Hillman combined. And as a testament to Anderson's soft hands, Anderson boasted a far higher catch rate (77.27%) than both Ball (69.23%) and Hillman (61.76%).

In regards to pass protection, it becomes evident that Anderson once again provides capable talent in an area where both Hillman and Ball have demonstrated weaknesses. Even as a rookie, C.J. Anderson was praised for his pass-blocking skills, a trait not normally associated with younger backs. His power, technique, alongside his awareness to identify his proper assignment quickly were evident early on in his pro career.

Last season, Anderson put these skills to use to outperform his backfield mates in protecting Peyton.

NamePass Block SnapsSacks AllowedHits AllowedHurries AllowedTotal Pressure Allowed% Pressures
C.J. Anderson5101347.8%
Ronnie Hillman3600338.3%
Montee Ball25103416.0%

As the data from Pro Football Focus reveals, Anderson allowed zero sacks and four total quarterback pressures on the 51 plays he was asked to pass block (7.8%), compared to three total pressures on just 36 pass-blocking plays for Hillman (8.3%), and four total pressures (including one sack) on just 25 pass-blocking plays for Ball (16%).

C.J. Anderson Is the Best Fit for Coach Kubiak's System

Whenever a new coaching regime enters the scene, the former loyalties held by the old regime are often discarded, making way for opportunities for new players to emerge into significant roles. As such, the arrival of Gary Kubiak as the new head coach for the Broncos raised some concerns regarding the lead back job that Anderson seemingly earned late last season.

But upon closer analysis, it seems as though the arrival of Kubiak as the Broncos new head coach may actually be a blessing in disguise for Anderson. As we'll soon see, Kubiak's offensive philosophy and his preferred "one-cut-and-go" zone-blocking scheme is a perfect fit for C.J. Anderson's skill set and playing style.

Vision and Agility
To succeed in Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, a running back must have patience, vision, anticipation, and the decisiveness to make an explosive cut into an open lane once it develops and then get downhill.

Watching C.J. Anderson play, it's clear he has all these traits. On multiple occasions last season, Anderson demonstrated excellent vision and an ability to diagnose the appropriate running lane to pursue, as seen here. He also displayed a strong ability to make quick, decisive cuts upfield, as seen on this play.

Those who question Anderson's physical attributes and cite his slow 40-yard dash time (4.60 seconds) conveniently ignore the fact that this same system has made Arian Foster -- with his 4.68 second 40-yard dash time -- one of the best running backs over the last five years.

Indeed, the agility to make quick and precise cuts into open lanes is more of a prerequisite to succeed in this system than top-end speed. And when we compare Anderson's agility scores from the 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle from the NFL Combine to the rest of the league, it's clear that he possesses the athleticism necessary to excel at this task.

NameHght3Cone20 ss
C.J. Anderson5' 8"7.154.12
Danny Woodhead5' 7½"7.034.2
Melvin Gordon6' 1"7.044.07
David Wilson5' 10"7.094.12
Jay Ajayi6' 0"7.14.1
Olandis Gary6' 1"7.154.13

C.J. Anderson finds himself alongside some other athletes with great lateral agility including Danny Woodhead, Melvin Gordon, and David Wilson. Anderson also possesses agility metrics comparable to Olandis Gary, another running back who racked up a 1,000-yard season under Gary Kubiak.

All this has been echoed by the Broncos head coach, stating: "...[Anderson's] proven that running zone schemes and doing those types of things seem to fit him very well," adding that in regards to the starting running back job, "C.J. obviously has a good head start on things."

Physical Build
At 5' 8" and 224 pounds, Anderson's stocky frame and low center of gravity gives him the ideal build for a workhorse running back. We will see later how important this is for Kubiak's system, which tends to lean on a single running back rather than rely on a committee approach. This body frame allows Anderson to deliver punishment to defenders and makes him an effective between the tackles runner.

When watching him play last season, on many occasions, Anderson demonstrated an ability to shed multiple tacklers on his way to big chunks of yards after contact to keep drives alive, such as this key fourth down play. With his hard-nosed running style, Anderson often 'pinballed' his way through defenders, as seen on this touchdown play. He also used his stocky size to operate as a very capable pass blocker, using his bulk and leverage to ward off blitzing linebackers and corners.

All in all, we can see that Anderson has all the attributes one would look for in a prototypical back in the Kubiak system, and has all the tools necessary to succeed in the new Broncos offense.

The Broncos Will Give C.J. Anderson a Heavy Workload

Critics that say the Broncos will be a pass-first offense with Manning under the helm seem to ignore the fact that, since 2010, Kubiak has called an average of 481 running plays per season, good for a 1.19 pass-to-run ratio. And say what you will about Gary Kubiak as a head coach, but the man knows how to run the football. Since 1995, Kubiak's offenses have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 15 out of the last 20 seasons.

Looking back since 2010, it's evident that, despite the league-wide shift towards a running back-by-committee approach, Kubiak prefers to lean on a single workhorse at the position. Over this time span, the lead back for Kubiak's teams have averaged 67% of the carries and 78% of all targets going to the tail back position each year, to the tune of 298 rushes and 51 targets per season.

Some point to the presence of Peyton Manning at quarterback and argue that this will necessitate a shift in philosophy by Kubiak toward a pass-heavy attack. But a closer look at the numbers reveals this also isn't true.

Since Manning joined the Broncos in 2012 -- and even when you include his ridiculous 2013 campaign in which he broke Tom Brady's single season record for passing touchdowns -- Denver still has called an average of 462 running plays per season, with a pass-to-run ratio of 1.39. This would have ranked them as the 14th most run-heavy offense last season, just behind the Minnesota Vikings.

From all this we can see that many of the worries regarding the Broncos workload at running back are largely unfounded, and that we can expect to see a heavy dose of the run game under new head coach Gary Kubiak.

No matter how you slice it, C.J. Anderson time and again finds himself in the lead of any argument regarding who should be the workhorse back for this team. And with the perfect skill set for Kubiak's system, and as a member of a potent offense that will consistently feed him touches, Anderson has the opportunity to turn in a huge season for the Broncos in 2015.