Jamaal Charles bowled the football across the turf, its oblong ends bouncing along the damp grass.
Devontae Booker, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, scooped the ball up and then fired a spiral back to Charles. Catching the ball is off limits for Booker as he prepares for surgery Friday on a fractured wrist, but this makeshift version of catch helped him stay close to the action as the Broncos opened training camp Thursday morning.
Charles, who practiced with a bulky brace over his right knee, was limited during the opening day of training camp. The plan, coach Vance Joseph said, is to bring the former Kansas City star along slowly, though Charles has been fully cleared in his return from multiple knee surgeries last November. Booker is expected to miss six weeks with the fractured wrist he suffered late in organized team activities.
The running back competition is open for business, and Booker’s injury and Charles’ limitations have opened the door for the rest of group full of players who believe they have plenty to prove.
“I feel like it’s an open opportunity for all of us, not just myself,” said De’Angelo Henderson, the rookie in a running back room full of veterans. “We’ll see what happens the next few days. Hopefully (Booker) recovers quick because we need him. He’s a high talent.”
It can be hard for running backs to stand out in the early days of training camp. An absence of pads means it can be hard to get a beat on who is truly slamming into holes and breaking away from would-be tackles. Still, C.J. Anderson was easy to spot Thursday, and not only because he was the only player wearing a hoodie under his practice jersey as the sun beat down on the grounds of the UC Health Training Center.
Joseph said Wednesday that Anderson is in his best shape “in three or four years,” a sentiment the running back agreed with following his first practice. His highlights included a tip-toe touchdown catch from Paxton Lynch in the corner of the end zone during red-zone work.
“I did some things this offseason that were introduced to me, and whether I liked it or didn’t like, I just kept going with it and kept pushing,” Anderson said. “I didn’t do something for two weeks and then stop. I just kept going with it through the whole offseason. I’m definitely in the best shape I’ve been in in a long time, so I’m excited about that.”
Anderson suffered a torn meniscus in his knee during the Broncos’ Week 7 victory over Houston last year and missed the rest of the season. The injury came just as he was finding his stride and after he had already rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Texans. His offseason work, he said, was designed with an eye on longevity.
“I got to look at it like it’s going to be 16-week grind,” Anderson said. “Don’t take it for granted. I sat back for nine weeks and realized how much I love it and how much I took a lot of this for granted thinking, ‘You made a couple plays, you’re going to be around.’ Can’t do that. Got to play like every play is your last. It’s just a different mentality and mindset for myself this year.”
Anderson took the lead Thursday with Bernard Pierce, Juwan Thompson and Henderson also seeing their share of repetitions. Andy Janovich, a fullback, is the other back on the team’s training-camp roster.
“I’m trying to maximize everything I get,” said Henderson, a sixth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina in April’s NFL draft. “I felt like I did pretty good Day 1. Helmets, running around and getting the blood flowing, we’ll see what happens when we get going the next (few) days.”
Anderson said it was a goal for the running back group to stay healthy during camp. It’s a group that quickly became thinner with Booker’s injury. To that end, and with the uncertainty surrounding Charles — who has only played in a total of eight games the past two seasons — the Broncos signed veteran running back Stevan Ridley after working him out at the team’s facility Thursday.