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Is Devontae Booker a lock for the Broncos 53-man roster?

(Photo by Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

The Broncos are going to be a run-heavy team in 2019. That means they’re going to need a deep and talented running back corps. They certainly have a ton of talent at the top with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, but what about the players behind them?

Devontae Booker is the next back up, but this once favorite of the former coaching staff is going to get pushed for his spot on the roster in training camp. A crop of young backs are showing flashes.

Is Booker a lock for the 53-man roster? Let’s examine his prospects.

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Unfulfilled Promise

The Broncos drafted Booker in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft to replace then-starter C.J. Anderson. Booker made some headlines before training camp as a rookie when he stated that he was not there to carry pads but to take someone’s job. Anderson was unfazed by the rookie’s statement, but it certainly put him under the spotlight as a rookie who was supposed to be a fine running back.

Instead of taking Anderson’s job, Booker played primarily as a backup until the team lost Anderson to a knee injury after seven games. Booker then was in position to take over as the starter and he did – but he did not impress.

The rookie was later replaced as the starter by veteran addition Justin Forsett and Booker finished his 2016 season with 612 yards rushing and only 3.5 yards per carry. After that season, Booker missed some time due to injury and never got another opportunity to start.

He was supposed to be better than this, but Booker has disappointed as a running back. Booker had the former coaching staff on his side, as he was a favorite of former head coach Vance Joseph. That’s not the case now with Vic Fangio in charge. Booker has lost his biggest supporter on the staff and will have to work hard to make a positive impression on the new staff.

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Receiving Threat

While Booker struggles as a runner, he can stand out as a receiver out of the backfield. During the last three seasons, Booker has caught at least 30 passes each year. While he struggles as a runner, Booker has made plays as a receiver out of the backfield.

He has natural hands and I would describe his receiving ability as excellent. Booker is an excellent option when the quarterback needs to find a relief-valve receiver under pressure. He does a good job of plucking passes out of the air and quickly brings the ball into his frame as to not get careless with the ball’s security.

Booker is a swift player who is tough to bring down when he gets a head of steam – and we’ve even seen him leap over defenders after making a catch on a swing pass. While he is not a player to trust as a runner, Booker is arguably the best receiving back on the Broncos roster.

Booker is a big back, but he does not work well when having to make quick decisions in a zone-blocking system. He is a “power gap” runner, meaning he will follow a blocking path and can hit the hole hard when he knows where to go. Booker struggles when faced with the decisions a back must contend with when choosing where to go in a zone system.

A back must decide whether to “bend, bang or bounce” in the system the Broncos are implementing this year under Rich Scangarello. That’s just a poor fit for Booker and something that could cost him a spot on the final roster.

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Cheaper Options

Booker is in the final year of his rookie contract and has a cap hit around $850,000 this season. There is only $95,000 left in dead money on his deal. That’s not a huge number to spend on a 27-year-old running back, but the Broncos could go cheaper (and younger) with a couple of the young backs behind him.

Khalfani Muhammad is likely next on the depth chart behind Booker and he’s the biggest threat to take over as the Broncos No. 3 running back. Muhammad was a seventh-round pick for the Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Coming out of Cal, Muhammad was known for his agility and quickness in the open field – plus his legitimate sprinter’s speed. Muhammad is certainly fast, but he’s a much smaller back than Booker. While Booker checks in around 219 pounds, Muhammad is listed at 175 pounds. Muhammad is much faster and more adept at running between the tackles, despite his size. If he proves himself in pass protection, then perhaps the team could keep him over Booker.

Devontae Jackson was one of my favorite undrafted free agents that the Broncos picked up this offseason. Coming out of West Georgia, Jackson was fun to watch on film because he is a big play waiting to happen any time he touches the ball. Like Muhammad, Jackson is a smaller back at 175 pounds.

While Muhammad does a good job of running inside, Jackson has a tendency to want to break every run to the outside as soon as he touches the ball. Jackson needs to show better discipline when pressing the hole inside. However, he does a good job as a return man and might find a way onto the final roster due to his special teams ability – perhaps at the cost of Booker’s spot on the roster.

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Summary

The Broncos backup running back position is wide open only a few days into training camp. Booker is working as the No. 3 running back, but not exclusively.

His best work for the Broncos has come as a receiver out of the backfield and that’s once again the case in camp. Booker is showing well as a receiving back, but that might not be enough to keep him on the roster. It’s especially going to be difficult for him now because he’s no longer a favorite of the coaching staff. These new coaches likely don’t dislike Booker, but they are not tied to him or intrigued by him the way the last staff was.

Muhammad is a better runner than Booker and he’s a good receiver, too. He’s not an excellent receiver like Booker, but it’s not like Muhammad is a liability as a pass catcher. Jackson is not as good of a runner as Muhammad, but his ability as a return man is better than any other back he’s competing with.

Booker has not performed up to expectations and might be running out of time in his Broncos career. If the other backs on the roster look better in camp and the preseason, then Booker could find himself looking for work in the near future.

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