Buyers in the Backfield: Meeting (Almost) Dolphins Running Back C.J. Anderson

*Article published before the Denver Broncos’ decision to match the Dolphins’ offer sheet.*

The Miami Dolphins have been active in free agency, adding players like Mario Williams, Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, Jermon Bushrod, and even the legendary Sam Young. But among the most intriguing additions that Mike Tannenbaum has made in the last week is Broncos running back C.J. Anderson. Part of the mass exodus of talent that typically accompanies loaded rosters after a Super Bowl victory, Anderson was signed to a low-tender offer sheet, meaning that the Broncos still have an opportunity to match the Dolphins’ contract offer. Unfortunately for Denver, the Dolphins made their contract offer in such a way that it would be extremely detrimental to the Broncos’ very cap-strapped situation to match. If Miami does succeed in luring the talented runner to South Beach from the Rocky Mountains, then the team will have their heir apparent for the departed Lamar Miller.

Anderson from Manning

(Photo: Matt Slocum/AP)

Background:

C.J. Anderson was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of California, Berkeley in 2013. Anderson did not play a major role in his inaugural season, though it should be noted he was on the Broncos’ 53-man roster for that season’s Super Bowl run. After Denver declined to re-sign incumbent starter Knowshon Moreno following their crushing defeat at the hand of the Seattle Seahawks, most “experts” believed that it would be the Montee Ball show in 2014. As it turned out, both Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman would struggle throughout the season, opening the door for the undrafted 2nd year player to carve out a role for himself. By midseason, it was painfully apparent that neither Ball nor Hillman were good fits for Adam Gase’s offense, so the keys were given to the more reliable Anderson. After a monster 160-yard game from scrimmage in a Week 10 win over the Raiders, Anderson was officially named the Broncos’ starter. From there, he exploded onto the scene, totaling 894 yards from scrimmage and 9 TDs in just 7 starts. He performed well in the Broncos’ early playoff exit to the Indianapolis Colts, and was seen as the clear favorite for the 2015 Broncos’ starting job, especially after he was named to the Pro Bowl as an injury alternate for Le’Veon Bell.

In 2015, Anderson struggled out of the gate due to some minor injuries and a learning curve for Gary Kubiak’s run-centric offense. Nagging pain and lack of confidence appeared to have sapped the agility that made him such a threat in late 2014. Anderson’s role quickly diminished to a time-share with Ronnie Hillman, who appeared much more comfortable in Coach Kubiak’s scheme. In Anderson’s first six games before the bye week, he posted stats that Trent Richardson would vomit after seeing: 180 yards and 0 TD’s at less than 2.7 yards per carry. However, after the Broncos’ Week 7 bye week, both Anderson and the offense as a whole appeared to be more comfortable. Anderson’s 2nd half performance was like night and day, as he totaled 540 yards and 5 TD’s at 6.3 yards per carry in a rotational role. After finishing the season strong, Anderson saved some of his best performances for the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, including a 90-yard performance against the Panthers that comprised the Broncos’ only offensive touchdown of their 24-10 Super Bowl 50 victory.

Strengths:

C.J. Anderson is a versatile running back who has performed at a very high level in more than one offense. While not a physical freak like Todd Gurley or Beast Mode, Anderson has all of the tools necessary to be a successful NFL halfback. Perhaps his most useful attribute is his elite agility. While lacking the straight-line speed that his teammate Ronnie Hillman possesses, C.J. Anderson has incredible short-area quickness. He uses this quickness to burst through running lanes, get out of tackles, and get to the 2nd level of the defense as efficiently as possible. To pair with his agility, he has a very low center of gravity and condensed size, which make him very difficult to wrap up once he has momentum downfield. At 5’8” and 224 pounds, Anderson has the mass to make defenders’ lives miserable and the agility to make slower defenders look silly. Take this play from the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory over the Panthers for example:

Anderson SB Run

In this play, Peyton Manning is lined up under center. Once the ball is snapped, the offensive line blocks right, shifting the defense to that side of the field. Anderson patiently waits for a hole to open, diagnoses that there is a lane in which to run, and uses his elite agility to cut back to the running lane. He does this in under two seconds, giving him the opportunity to catch defenders by surprise. His low center of gravity coupled with his downfield momentum make the running back nearly impossible to tackle, as he deflects four Panthers’ defenders off of him and rumbles for 34 yards in what was the longest offensive play in the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 victory.

While his physical tools make him a viable NFL player, it’s C.J. Anderson’s intangibles that make him a great player with elite potential at the running back position. His work ethic, high football IQ, and vision as a ball carrier are among the best in the league; considering his aforementioned physical ability, it’s honestly shocking that all 32 teams passed him up in the 2013 NFL draft. Anderson excels in all areas of the game that are influenced by hard work and natural intelligence, such as ball carrier vision, pass protection, and route running. In fact, it’s his football IQ that allowed him to overtake other, more athletic running backs atop the Broncos’ depth chart over the last two years. To play in a complicated system like that of Peyton Manning, Gary Kubiak, or Adam Gase, you must be well versed and confident in your abilities. These two plays against the 2014 Oakland Raiders showcase both Anderson’s physical and mental abilities:

Anderson 51 YD TD

Here, Anderson runs a screen route, an integral part of any Adam Gase offense. As the play develops, Anderson fulfills his role as a pass-protector, slowing down the now All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack before continuing his route. Peyton Manning reads the blitz, and dumps the ball off to Anderson. From there, the running back breaks a tackle, starts momentum downfield, and identifies the best running lane to his right. Anderson uses his vision and agility to juke out half of the defense, break a few more tackles, and score a 51-yard touchdown. This next play occurred against the Raiders just a few weeks later in the same season:

Anderson run

Here you will notice that Manning is in the shotgun, where he calls a draw play to the left side of the field. After the ball is snapped and in Anderson’s hands, he notices that the left side of the box is stacked, and a running lane has since opened up on the right side. Anderson quickly cuts back, breaks a couple of tackles, and waltzes into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown. In this play Anderson’s vision and patience transformed a potentially negative play into seven points. Adam Gase loves smart playmakers like C.J. Anderson, as it ultimately makes his job as a play caller much easier.

Weaknesses:

As I stated previously, Anderson is not, and never will be, a perfect physical specimen like an Adrian Peterson or a Todd Gurley. While he does possess a lot of strength to go with his incredible agility, he is definitely lacking in lateral speed. His 4.6 40-yard dash is not terrible, but it does display a lack of straight-line speed. This lack of burst is most identifiable when Anderson is asked to run outside the tackles on a stretch run. If Anderson is rendered unable to locate a hole in the defense, or if the offensive line is unable to generate one, he lacks the pure speed to bounce outside and make a positive gain all on his own. Take this play against the Kansas City Chiefs early last season for example:

Anderson Poor Outside Run

The play call is a run to the outside. The offensive line generates a hole, but Anderson is not quick enough to reach it before a defender wraps him up from behind. Even though there was a running lane present, which Anderson properly identified, he was unable to exploit it before a more athletic defender tracked him down. The Pro Bowler’s excellent vision and agility that allow him to quickly take advantage of running lanes are far less applicable when he needs to go farther to reach them.

The biggest question mark in regard to C.J. Anderson is whether or not he can put together a full season of excellent football. In 2014 he did not have a featured role until Week 9. In 2015 he was awful for 6 weeks before turning it on after his bye in Week 7. Even though he has had a valid excuse for both years, as he was still undiscovered in 2014 and was adjusting to a new offense in 2015, this raises concern as to his viabity as a true featured back for an entire season. He has yet to top 180 carries in a season, when a typical starting NFL running back like Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, or Shady McCoy average 250-300 carries over the course of a 16 game season. It is fair to wonder if Gase will limit Anderson’s carries or look to use another talented back like Jay Ajayi in a rotational role, as this is the system in which I believe Anderson to be most comfortable.

How He Would Fit in Miami:

Anderson Crazy person

(Photo: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

The comparisons to Lamar Miller are inevitable, but they really shouldn’t be. Anderson and Miller have completely different skill sets, and it’s hard to judge as to which one would be more successful in Coach Gase’s offense. Though the departed Miller would likely have thrived under Gase, I think the same is possible for C.J. Anderson. Considering he has had arguably the most impressive stretch of performances in his career under Gase, and is familiar with his system ahead of training camp, I think it likely that he picks up where he left off. He fits the mold of an Adam Gase running back: He has a high football IQ, he is a capable receiver and pass protector, and he has outstanding ball-carrier vision and agility which makes him perfect for a zone based run offense like the one that Gase has employed in the past. We have already published an article detailing how running backs fit into Gase’s offense, which I recommend reading when assessing the CJ Anderson signing.

Personally, I feel that Anderson would be most successful as the primary running back in a two or three man rotation, as Gase has often done in the past. While Anderson had some success as the lone wolf in 2014 and in the 2015 playoffs, he benefited greatly from the use of speedy teammate Ronnie Hillman as a capable sidekick. All in all, Anderson is a smart, diligent, hard-nosed running back that knows Adam Gase’s system. I think it’s telling that Anderson declined a more lucrative offer from Chicago in order to join Adam Gase in Miami, even if his old coach thinks he’s a bit of a chubster. As an undrafted free agent, C.J. Anderson has always played hard and with a chip on his shoulder, and there is no reason to believe he won’t dedicate every fiber of his being into making the Miami Dolphins’ offense special in 2016 and beyond.

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