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Bell Still In The Mix, But Anderson Holding Steady At No. 1...
According to those who follow the Broncos closely, Tatum Bell has only periodically shown flashes of the runner that led the NFL in per-carry average after Dec. 1 last season. But he also appeared to have one of his best practices last Thursday during the final joint workout between the Broncos and Texans, displaying an extra gear during the full-team period.

Afterward, Bell said he's focusing on himself, not the battle to become the starter. "I've just got to go out and play my game and not worry about who is in front of me," he said. "If I go out and handle my business, everything else will fall into place. ..."

But that hasn't happened yet.

As Rocky Mountain News staff writer Lee Rasizer noted this morning, while Mike Anderson has been the most consistent and, by far, the best short-yardage and goal-line runner of the Broncos' backs and Ron Dayne consistently has raised his stock while flashing surprising quickness, Bell has been solid, if unspectacular.

But Anderson, who was slated to be the starter last summer before suffering a season-ending groin injury in a meaningless exhibition game, is of primary interest in this discussion as the man currently holding down Denver's coveted No. 1 tailback spot.

Although he still runs with a punishing style and makes decisive cuts -- and remains willing to initiate contact, when needed, the 31-year old former Marine claims to be physically rejuvenated after getting past the recovery phase of his rehabilitation, then rounding himself into shape over the past year since being injured last summer.

"I feel better than I did then," Anderson said. "The year off gave my body a chance to rest up and not take such a pounding on it. Mentally, I'm highly attuned with what I'm doing. And I'm just excited to be back. And I want to go out there and do the best I can to help this ballclub."

Anderson led all Broncos rushers with a 4.8-yards-per-carry average last summer and is hoping to pick up where he left off. He'll need to maintain his current pace, considering he is being pushed by Bell, a younger option with better breakaway speed.

"He's knocking people around," right tackle George Foster said of Anderson last week, adding that he's "excited" to see his teammate perform.

"He's an elder statesman, so he knows the ins and outs of the game," Foster continued. "He's looking good. He's getting back to form."

So much so, in fact, that Denver Post beat writer Mike Klis advised readers this morning: "Attention fantasy-leaguers: This is no professional courtesy to seniority. When the Broncos opened their preseason schedule Saturday in Houston against the Texans, the first-team offense was on the field for 18 plays. Anderson hogged them all."

And it appears he'll continue to do so again this Saturday night, when the Broncos play their second preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers. According to Klis, Anderson again will run with the first team. Bell, Dayne and Quentin Griffin will rotate with the backup groups.

"All four guys bring something to the table," head coach Mike Shanahan said -- noticeably eliminating Maurice Clarett from the conversation (more on that below). "We've got a few more games to evaluate them and make our decision."

But Klis added: "Make no mistake, if everyone stays healthy, Anderson will be the starting tailback Sept. 11 at Miami, where the Broncos open their regular season.

"So much for the running back competition that, on paper, seemed so riveting as training camp commenced. Bell rushed for 123 yards against Miami the first time he got a chance to become the featured back last year. Dayne is a former Heisman Trophy winner who had five years' experience with the New York Giants. Griffin was the electric running back from Oklahoma who rushed for 156 yards and scored three touchdowns in the 2004 opener against Kansas City. Clarett was a Heisman front-runner much of his freshman season at Ohio State.

"Sexy candidates all, yet to date, Anderson has done nothing other than perform to his sturdy standards to hold them off."

Bell, meanwhile, has split time behind the first-team offensive line this week and hasn't been with the second unit, as he had previously in camp. But, as has been the case all camp, Anderson takes the snaps first and then Bell.

"It's been real competitive," Bell said. "While I'm worried about Mike, Dayne, he's pushing me. We're all pushing each other. And the best will come out. It's all going to hit the fan pretty soon."

Dayne has solidified himself at No. 3, though Griffin also still could be a factor there.

The hope for Bell? As Rasizer framed it, "The tough call regarding the starter's job in preseason or when the season begins ultimately should come down to the comfort level of consistent 4- and 5-yard gains Anderson or Dayne can offer versus the demoralizing effect a long run by Bell might provide in the mold of Clinton Portis."

Bell insisted all he has been trying to accomplish in camp is to be consistent on a daily basis and make his presence felt behind Anderson. His hope is Anderson "slips," allowing Bell an opportunity to move up the pecking order and, eventually, stay there.

One thing working in Bell's favor has been good health. His first training camp with the Broncos was disrupted by a fractured right middle finger. Once the season began, he was inactive one week after tearing rib cartilage and missed another game because of a pulled hamstring.

He did not regularly get a chance in the backfield until December, so waiting three weeks of camp for another chance is easy by comparison.

"I figure I'm the best back and I figure like (another chance) is going to come again," he said.

And based on the big-play capability he brings to the table, it's safe to assume Shanahan hasn't given up on Bell yet. Nor should Fantasy owners. Even if Anderson opens the season firmly entrenched as the starter and as the team's designated goal-line specialist, Bell will still have Fantasy value.

Your task over the next few weeks is to follow along closely enough to figure out what that value is in order to best take advantage of it come draft day.

Until then, I'll remind you that Bell impressed Shanahan to no end when finally given the chance last year, especially when he rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns against Miami late in the season. I'll also remind you that in an interview published in this year's Football Diehards magazine, I asked Jake Plummer for teammates to watch this fall and Bell was the first name he offered.

"Bell showed everybody kind of a glimpse of what he can do (last year)," Plummer explained. "How he can run, and if he can play for the whole 16 games, I mean that kid has got amazing potential."

Shanahan is well aware of his potential. And that's why I'm not ready to dismiss Bell out of hand just yet. ...

In a related note. ... Team officials are said to be disappointed that Clarett, who has only been on the field once since straining his groin two weeks ago, has yet to practice this week. The Broncos had Clarett take an MRI last Tuesday. The test showed no serious damage and Shanahan had hoped Clarett would be back on the practice field Monday.

That had yet to happen through today.

The Broncos tried to speed up Clarett's healing process by having him stay behind last week while they worked out with the Texans in Houston. He went through four rehabilitation workouts each day but continued his rocky training camp by sitting out again today.

All of which prompted Shanahan to address his chances of being on the team's roster after Clarett sat out again today. The coach's words sounded a strong note that reflected the cutthroat nature of the competition for a place among the 53 players an NFL team carries into the regular season.

"If everybody's here, he should be concerned about making this football team," Shanahan said. "If you're not (concerned), then you're not a realist, and if you're not practicing, then obviously it doesn't help your chances."

And every day Clarett misses is a detriment to his progress.

"Obviously, people get hurt, and once they miss their reps it hurts their chances of not only making the team, but getting any playing time," Shanahan said. "That's just the nature of this business. Hopefully he can get back here soon, if he does, then he's got a chance to compete.

"You can't compete, obviously, if you're not on the practice field."

I'll advise you at this point that some observers have speculated that Clarett's slow recovery has as much to do with the former Ohio State standout trying to get out of an incentive-laden contract he now realizes is unlikely to deliver the payout hoped upon signing.

Whatever the case, the clocking is ticking on Clarett and he doesn't have much time left to prove his worth.

Other notes of interest. ...

According to the Rocky Mountain News, after the Broncos matched a $12.5 million contract offer from the Jets to keep him, Jeb Putzier still finds himself behind Stephen Alexander in the starting offense for much of training camp. While Putzier figures to play plenty as the Broncos use a two-tight end look repeatedly when they have the ball, he has said he was hoping to stay on the field more this season than last.

In 2004 he often was taken out of the lineup because of concerns about his blocking when the Broncos got inside the opponents' 20-yard line. "It's what I've been hoping the last three years, I want to do more," Putzier said. "I'm just trying to keep on working to get the chance. ..."

And finally. ... As initially reported by Associated Press sports writer Eddie Pells, Jerry Rice moved up the Denver depth chart Monday, running as the No. 3 receiver at Broncos practice, ahead of Darius Watts. Rice was limited in practice much of last week with a sore foot. He played briefly in last Saturday's preseason game against the Texans and caught one pass for six yards.

Watts struggled against Houston, catching two passes but dropping a handful of others. It was the same problem that plagued him last season -- he was good at getting open, not so dependable in securing the football.

Rice said he's trying to help the second-year receiver. "I just told him, 'Hey, you've got to let it go,'" Rice said. "He's a hard worker and I think he wants success, but he's got to keep on pushing. When the opportunity is there, that's when you've got to take advantage of it. ..."

Watts said he knew he made mistakes in Saturday's game, but said he wasn't discouraged. "I thought I'd been doing pretty good" in training camp, he said. "But I had a bad game."

But nobody is giving up on the youngster.

"The key about being a receiver is consistency, and when he has that consistency, he's going to play for us," Shanahan said. "Because nobody can touch him."