The newest Denver Broncos late-round running back selection is Ryan Torain (foot), a fifth-round pick out of Arizona State. Torain played in only six games during his senior season, but Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan said that he thinks Torain has the ability of a first rounder. The Broncos hope Torain can improve a rush offense that was ninth in the NFL last year, averaging 122.3 yards per game.
Torain is expected to compete for a spot in a backfield that is suddenly a lot more competitive, and no running back has his spot guaranteed. The general expectation following halfback Travis Henry's release is that tailback Selvin Young will take his place and be the initial starter, with the backup roles being wide open. Keep in mind, however, that Shanahan could employ a running back-by-committee approach and utilize each back extensively, meaning Torain could get more than a handful of carries per game. That is part of the joy (or frustration for fantasy owners) when it comes to dealing with the Broncos backfield - you simply don't know what to expect. He'll still have to beat out tailback Andre Hall and veteran running back Michael Pittman, but it seems like something he could do if he remains healthy, meaning Torain could now start the season as the top backup.
Torain suffered a Lisfranc sprain in 2007 that cost him all but six games. He underwent a new surgical procedure that is expected to shave four months off the required rehabilitation time. If there is no setback, Torain should be put into the mix as soon as training camp starts. Shanahan really likes Torain, so you'd have to figure that he would get quite a few opportunities in the preseason to show what he has to offer. His chances to impress Shanahan received a big boost when Henry was cut, but the addition of Pittman once again muddies the water a bit.
The Broncos running back position is usually one of the most talked about situations each year, and there's a good reason for that. Since 1995, the Broncos have only finished outside the top 10 in team rushing yardage one time, and they have finished in the top five nine times. Shanahan has had a great deal of success in the draft finding late-round running backs, but the Broncos have had only two legitimate stars at the position in running backs Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis (Washington Redskins).
The aging of the Broncos offensive line has caused the effectiveness of their zone-blocking system to slip a bit, but the Broncos drafted left tackle Ryan Clady (Boise State) in the first round of the draft to fill the gap left by Matt Lepsis' offseason retirement. The Broncos followed with offensive guard/center Kory Lichtensteiger (Bowling Green) in the fourth round to try to solidify the position. Denver also signed two more tackles that went undrafted.
Torain, 6-foot, 222 pounds, is a tough running back who will look to get the Broncos the yards they need by staying up after initial contact. He could be utilized as more of a goal line threat than many of the other Broncos running backs and could wind up with a few touchdowns this year. Torain could fill a role similar to that of former Broncos running back Mike Anderson (currently with the Baltimore Ravens), who was known to get the tough yards. If the Broncos don't like what they see out of Young after a couple of games and opt for a change, Torain should at least have a chance to be his replacement.
With the possibility of him being held back a little bit in training camp as he recovers from his foot injury, Torain will probably head into the preseason as the team's No. 4 running back behind Young, Pitman and Hall. University of Houston running back Anthony Alridge was signed after going undrafted, and he should get a chance to make the team in preseason as well. Alridge's skill set is entirely different than Torain's, so the signing shouldn't affect Torain's standing with the team at all.
Fantasy football outlook
Just like it is every year, the Broncos running backs are a fantasy owner's worst nightmare. Now that Henry is out of the picture, the situation becomes even more of a mess. Young showed plenty of potential to succeed last year, but now that he will likely be given the starting role, it remains to be seen whether or not he can succeed over the long haul. Torain could be used as a goal line back, which would give him mild fantasy value, but as long as he's behind at least Young and Pittman on the depth chart, he may not have too many opportunities to help your team. Pittman was signed for depth, but based on how things play out in training camp, or pending injury, he could have a bigger role with the team. Hall and fullback Mike Bell shouldn't be drafted.
Young is a risky pick, because while he may play very well the first couple games, it isn't known how he'll hold up over the course of the season. Still, the Broncos starting running back position is usually a successful one, so draft Young as a good No. 3 fantasy back with No. 2 potential. However, don't reach for him on draft day. Pittman could turn into a threat out of the backfield, but as long as he is the backup, he is no more than a mediocre No. 5 back in point-per-reception leagues. Torain is an interesting player and definitely someone you would want to retain in keeper leagues, but he isn't worth drafting outside of very deep single-year formats at this time. Should he secure a more prominent role before the season starts, take a late-round flier on him knowing that he can be cut from your team at any time.
About Ben Rubin
Ben Rubin has been a KFFL contributor since 2007.
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