It's funny how players come out of the woodwork. One day an NFL running back is playing behind two running backs and chances are slim he'll see a lick of playing time. Most people only know him as a blip on the depth chart, a player who might come on in the event of a catastrophic turn of events for the starters and even if you do get his shot, he'll likely only end up posting mediocre numbers before the starters return from whatever caused them to come off the field.
We always have that notion when we watch the NFL, but time and time again a backup will come onto the scene and show us skills that we never thought a backup would have. We ask ourselves questions like 'how did this guy slip through the cracks?' 'Does he do this in practice?' 'Why does that one guy in our league always get to the waiver wire before me? He must have no life.'
The guy we asked those questions about last year was Broncos' C.J. Anderson, as we enjoyed the roller coaster ride that took us down another surprising turn into the 'who we consider an elite fantasy running back' category. Anderson dazzled those who only heard of the other famous C.J. (2K) before him. Anderson showed quick feet in getting up to the line, a decisive explosion when cutting upfield (perhaps his best trait) and added a eye-opening desire to break tackles through his elite balance and lack of fear when engaging defenders in the open field. It was because of these traits (and several more that we'll mention later in this piece) that led Anderson to become the hottest running back down the stretch of 2014. Considering he only started seven games, it was quite an impression.
Disclaimer: When identifying a very good fantasy running back, you can simplify everything down to two basic traits before you get into specifics. These are the two basic idea of what a fantasy running back should have.
2. Potential for high volume of carries
Of course, there are many more details to extrapolate from those scenarios, but those are the two overarching traits you must understand while drafting a quality fantasy running back.
On paper, Anderson doesn't exactly rattle nerves of defenders. He stands at a fun-sized 5'8, 224lbs. His 4.60 speed won't blow the lid of defenses. His one calling card was the 20-yard shuttle, which he posted a combine-high 4.12 seconds for that particular year.
He doesn't have a breathtaking open field running style like the LeSean McCoy's or Adrian Peterson's of the world. He doesn't even have a nickname yet, as CJ2K has already been taken. Maybe CJ1.5K plus 500 yards receiving would be a reasonable expectation at this point.
But he offers so much in so many other areas that the idea of him not being a burner almost seems like an afterthought when you watch him play.
Anderson possesses several highly valuable traits at the NFL level, one of which is elite balance while running through the hole. As Anderson takes a handoff, he shows the kind of burst needed to get to the line of scrimmage quickly enough before the defenders diagnose what hole he's running to. It's not an elite burst, but it's still very good.
Once at the line of scrimmage, he changes his footwork from long strides into short, choppy steps in order to change direction quickly. This is just before he shows us why he's an elite running back at the NFL level.
Right before he hits the hole, he shows a very impressive cut upfield which allows him to accelerate through the hole. He lacks a third gear which prevents him from maybe splitting the two deeper defenders, but he still gets a very positive gain on the play.
Notice how he ramps up his acceleration after putting his foot in the ground and cutting upfield. His balance allows that shift to be a smooth, seamless transition, which is a valuable quality when it comes to gaining a speed advantage on the defense.
In this second clip, you'll see how his balance and running style allows him to slip past defenders.
Notice how his pad level stays low which forces defenders to tackle him at the waist or risk being too high which would give the smaller Anderson a momentum advantage. Anderson stays on an even plane for the entire length of the run aside from when he breaks out of a tackle. His feet are always moving, which allows him to break through arm tackles. His toughness is also on display as he avoids running out of bounds and instead cuts it back and looks to take on more defenders. That's the sign of a true workhorse back.
In this third clip, you'll see his running style directly translate to points on the field. Watch for the same characteristics I noted above.
Another trait Anderson possesses is a high level of mental toughness. He processes a play very quickly which allows him to be one step ahead of the defense mentally at times. Here we see an example of it after the catch.
One of the backs who I've noticed execute a similar type of elusiveness is Eagles' RB Darren Sproles. Though Sproles is more of a burner and and an explosive back, his low pad level and small frame creates a similar effect on the defender as you'll see below.
Vision is another key quality to look for. Pay attention to the clip at the bottom of the article and notice how the offensive line is moving to the right, and watch how Anderson has to quickly make the decision to squeeze through a moving hole. Think of it like trying to jump through a hula hoop that's moving to the right and is about 2 inches off the ground. You have to time it just right and keep your feet high enough so you don't trip. Anderson executes it as well as you possibly could. Once Anderson breaks through the first level, his elite acceleration that we mentioned earlier allows him to change gears quickly and get to the outside.
Whether or not Anderson will get the correct situation is still a mystery. Montee Ball will likely get another shot at some point due the Broncos being so invested in the Wisconsin product. So if Anderson slips up at all, expect there to be a cosmic change in the Broncos' lineup. But as of now, he's the guy. And his talent is second to few in the NFL. He's worth a first-round pick in 2015 due to talent alone.