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Player Spotlight: C.J. Anderson

A detailed look at C.J. Anderson's fantasy prospects for 2016.

GOOD SEQUELS ARE HARD TO COME BY

For every Empire Strikes Back, we’ve been forced to endure countless Speed 2: Cruise Controls and Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyds.

So it probably shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when C.J. Anderson followed up his low-budget blockbuster 2014 with what can only be considered a colossal box office flop as a first-round fantasy pick last season.

In retrospect, it’s tough to argue with the logic that had so many owners reaching for Anderson leading up to last year’s drafts, despite an alarmingly small seven game sample as Denver’s starting running back. The Cliffs Notes version:

  • After taking over for the injured Ronnie Hillman in Week 9, Anderson finished in a virtual dead-heat with Le’Veon Bell for the rest-of-season PPR running back scoring crown.

  • Anderson’s six games with greater than 22.5 fantasy points ranked behind only DeMarco Murray’s nine and Matt Forte's eight, despite the latter two backs starting all 16 games.

  • Gary Kubiak was taking over as Denver’s head coach. Kubiak’s one-cut zone blocking scheme had produced 14 top-10 rushing teams in his 20 seasons as a coordinator or head coach. Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Steve Slaton, and Justin Forsett were career nobodies Kubiak’s system propelled to huge fantasy seasons.

  • Peyton Manning’s leading running back since he entered the league in 1998 had averaged 1,518 total yards and 10.4 touchdowns per season.

  • Anderson’s primary competition for carries came from career back-up Ronnie Hillman and unproven youngster Montee Ball (until Ball was cut a week before the season opener).

To sum it up, Anderson was hyper-efficient when given the opportunity, entering his prime years with fresh legs, playing in a system that suited his skill set perfectly, and had Manning’s stellar running back track record on his side. He was every bit a worthy first round pick...who went on to finish as the RB31.

With the stench of failed expectations still wafting around Anderson, he can currently be scooped as the best early-round running back value in 2016 fantasy drafts. Besides no longer having Manning on his side (which didn’t actually help any member of the Broncos offense in 2015), Anderson still checks off every box he did coming into last season, only now he’s available in the fourth round.

A Tale of Two Halves

Anderson’s 2015 would be remembered much differently if he hadn’t tweaked his ankle in Denver’s first preseason game, then sprained his toe in the regular-season opener. The turf toe injury was subsequently described by Kubiak as “rolling his ankle a bit”, which makes it fair to wonder if Anderson had also aggravated the preseason ankle injury in Week 1. Regardless, Anderson stumbled out of the gate, rushing for less than 2.5 yards per carry in each of Denver’s first three games and failing to top 70 total yards in any game before Week 8.

Anderson’s painfully slow start opened the door for Ronnie Hillman to assume an even split of the Broncos backfield workload. Here’s how the production broke down over the first six games:

  Rush Att Rush Yds Rush YPA Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
C.J. Anderson 67 180 2.69 0 13 100 0
Ronnie Hillman 66 323 4.89 2 10 17 0

But now take a look at what happened from Weeks 8-17, after Anderson finally had a chance to rest his injuries during Denver’s Week 7 bye:

  Rush Att Rush Yds Rush YPA Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
C.J. Anderson 85 540 6.35 5 12 83 0
Ronnie Hillman 140 540 3.85 5 18 94 0

There are three takeaways here:

  1. Once Anderson put the injuries behind him, he returned to his 2014 form. Those 6.35 yards per attempt were tops in the NFL. ESPN’s Mike Clay notes Anderson’s 2.8 yards after contact per attempt was also best among the 38 running backs who carried the ball more than 70 times during this stretch.

  2. Ronnie Hillman is terrible. It took Hillman 61 more touches to produce seven more fantasy points than Anderson.

  3. Despite Anderson clearly being the more effective runner, Kubiak chose not to deviate from his strict backfield platoon. In fact, Anderson’s role was reduced in the second half. His snap count dropped from 57% in Weeks 1-6 down to 43% after the Week 7 bye.

On the surface, that third bullet doesn’t bode well for Anderson’s workload going forward, but we have every reason to expect 2016 to play out differently.

Bye, Ronnie

The last relevant set of Anderson/Hillman splits comes from Denver’s three playoff games:

  Rush Att Rush Yds Rush YPA Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
C.J. Anderson 54 234 4.33 2 9 39 0
Ronnie Hillman 32 54 1.69 0 1 7 0

When the Broncos entered win-or-die mode, Kubiak clearly recognized Anderson was his best option. Hillman was all but completely phased out of Denver’s Super Bowl game plan, touching the ball just five times to Anderson’s season-high 27.

If any questions remained about how the Broncos viewed their running back hierarchy, they were answered quickly enough during free agency. After curiously giving Anderson an original-round tender (essentially allowing a competing team to set his market value), the Broncos eventually matched Miami’s front-loaded four-year, $18 million restricted free agent offer sheet. The deal guarantees Anderson $7.6 million, with a total of $5.9 million coming this season (i.e. starter money).

Hillman was brought back as an afterthought shortly before the NFL Draft on a one-year, $2 million deal, with only $500,000 guaranteed (i.e. roster spot may not be safe money). While it does appear Hillman will make the Broncos and he may even have the inside track for the backup job, it’s a near-certainty he won’t resume his 2015 workload.

Denver spent a fourth-round draft pick on Utah running back Devontae Booker, a potential three-down back who profiles as a strong stylistic fit in Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. Some view Booker’s selection as a threat to Anderson’s snaps, but after the money the Broncos doled out in free agency, it’s far more likely Booker pushes Hillman for backup duties. Booker’s Anderson-like skill set (power, quickness, elusiveness and receiving ability) makes him a far superior Plan B to Hillman should Anderson need a series off or get nicked up again.

A Steady Beat

Those closest to the team have all been telling the same story since Anderson signed his contract in March -- a heavier workload is on the way in 2016:

“C.J. played his best football at the end of the year. I think C.J. hasn’t even reached the heights he can reach. I think C.J. is really just getting started. Being in our system again, if C.J. can stay healthy and stay on the field for 16 weeks, I think he can be one of the top backs in the league -- and I think he believes that.” - Gary Kubiak

“The plan remains for Anderson to receive the bulk of the carries.” -Troy Renck, Denver Post

C.J. Anderson is in the best condition I’ve seen him in and has responded to competition. He’s ready to be an every-down back.” -Kubiak via Troy Renck on Twitter

“Week 1 turf toe and ankle injuries were to blame for (Anderson’s) maddening regular season usage. This year C.J. decides when he comes off the field (see Super Bowl 50).” - Cecil Lammey, Denver 104.3FM The Fan on Twitter.

C.J. Anderson has looked like the No. 1 running back his contract says he is throughout OTAs so far. His cuts are decisive, just as they were in the second half of the 2015 season after he had recovered from a sprained ankle.”- Andrew Mason, Broncos Digital Media Team

Built to Run

Denver’s offseason moves, combined with the makeup of their roster in general, suggest they plan on being one of the run-heaviest teams in the league this year.

The historically great defense the Broncos rode to a Super Bowl championship remains the obvious strength of the team. Last year, Denver allowed the fewest opponent yards per play (4.5) in the NFL. With Von Miller’s contract dispute now in the rear view, the Broncos defense should once again impose their will, creating the positive (or at least neutral) game scripts the running game needs to thrive.

Of course, that’s assuming the Broncos quarterbacks don't take a blowtorch to those plans. The prospect of Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, or a bright green Paxton Lynch piloting the defending champs doesn’t inspire much confidence in Denver's offense as a whole. But if Sanchez (by far the most experienced candidate) earns the starting nod as expected, there shouldn’t be devastating effects for the Broncos running game.

Sanchez’s last extended run as a starter came in Weeks 10-17 of the 2014 season. During that stretch, Eagles running backs averaged 113.5 yards per game, 4.32 yards per attempt, and had 10 rushing touchdowns. In the eight games prior, they averaged 114.1 yards per game, 4.42 yards per attempt and had five rushing touchdowns. While Sanchez is a mortal lock for a few boneheaded plays each game, he’s capable enough of sustaining drives.

Besides, Kubiak’s plan is clearly to insulate his questionable quarterbacks by attacking opposing defenses with a healthy dose of the running game. In addition to spending on tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in free agency, the Broncos have been rotating sixth-round pick Andy Janovich and Juwan Thompson at fullback in OTAs. More two-back sets will provide Anderson with an extra blocker to help overcome the eight-man boxes he’s likely to face.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The best third installment of a movie franchise ever (per IMDb) was The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. While it’s probably asking a bit much for Anderson to be this year’s best fantasy football running back, “Return of the King” is not an unfitting subtitle to describe his bounceback prospects.

Given the substantial investment Denver made in Anderson this offseason, the endorsements he’s received from those closest to the team, and the run-heavy approach the Broncos are sure to take, 18 total touches per game seems like a safe projection.

But don’t discount the possibility Anderson winds up among the league leaders in running back touches this season. Kubiak is the same coach who rode Arian Foster into the ground by feeding him the ball between 24 and 25.5 times per game for three straight seasons. Given the structure of Anderson’s contract, Denver has very little to lose by riding him as hard as they can this year, then moving on to Booker in 2017 should the proverbial wheels fall off.

For Anderson to end up at or above 22 touches per week -- a workload only Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and Adrian Peterson exceeded in 2015 -- he’ll need the Broncos quarterbacks to avoid a complete meltdown, their defense to remain one of the best in the league, and a hot start that keeps Booker or Hillman off the field.

None of those scenarios are far-fetched enough to justify Anderson’s current fourth-round ADP (RB16). His past efficiency at every healthy opportunity indicates he’s currently being drafted near his floor, even if he does top out around 15 carries and two plus catches per game. And if Anderson gets the opportunity to run as Kubiak’s latest bell cow, a mid-high RB1 season is on the way.

Positives

  • Anderson has shown top-end production at every healthy opportunity he’s received in his career.

  • Ronnie Hillman is awful and Gary Kubiak finally figured it out. Devontae Booker has much to prove before he starts stealing work from a running back being paid $6 million this season

  • Denver coaches and beat reporters are in unanimous agreement -- Anderson is the guy.

  • Gary Kubiak’s plan cannot possibly be to beat teams by allowing Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian to throw at will.

Negatives

  • Anderson has to prove bumps and bruises won’t hold him back after how poorly he played through injury last season.

  • Hillman is terrible, but what if Booker (who some scouts gave a second-round grade) shows well enough in the preseason to force a timeshare?

  • Denver’s quarterback situation is one of the worst in the league and could be a drain on the entire offense.

  • Despite the additions of Okung and Stephenson, our Matt Bitonti ranks Denver’s offensive line among the worst in the league.

Projections

 
  Rushes Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Dodds 225 990 8 35 284 1
Wood 215 950 7 43 320 2
Alexander 244 1074 8 37 281 2

Other viewpoints

ESPN’s Mike Clay writes Anderson is a top post-hype sleeper:

“Anderson owns a resume that shows excellent rushing production over 412 carries, coupled with competent effectiveness as both a receiver and pass blocker. Following a fairly quick rise up the NFL ranks similar to that of Arian Foster earlier this decade, Anderson is on the verge of finally exploding into fantasy stardom in 2016. He should be on your radar as a fringe-RB1.”

Rotoworld’s Evan Silva considers Anderson a high floor/low ceiling back-end RB1:

“Barring another hard-luck start, Anderson is set up for a voluminous workload. Obstacles include a sub-par line and offense as a whole, which last year ranked 19th in points per game (22.2) and seems unlikely to improve with Sanchez, Lynch, and/or Siemian under center. A first-round fantasy pick in 2015, Anderson's ADP has dipped into the fourth round. I'm viewing him as a high-floor, low-ceiling fringe RB1/2 this season.”