TATUM BELL'S eyeswidened when he saw the hole open in front of him. It was only a morningpractice on the fourth day of Broncos camp last week, but Bell wanted to provehimself in this goal line drill. The 2004 second-round pick out of OklahomaState is known more for speed than for toughness, and his mission in camp is tochange that perception. But when Bell hit the opening, two defenders slammedinto him at the three-yard line, and the ball popped loose. The 5'11",213-pound back hung his head for a moment, knowing he'd lost a little moreground in the competition to become Denver's starting tailback.
At lunch Bell wasstill thinking about that fumble. "I was having a good practice if youdiscount that play," he said. Big if. Before minicamp in the spring, coachMike Shanahan had told him he has to avoid going down on first contact beforehe can be more than a change-of-pace back in a Broncos system that has produceda 1,000-yard rusher in all but one season since 1995. In response Bell addedsix pounds and is working at fighting through arm tackles. But the extra effortmight not even be enough to lift Bell--who gained 921 yards on 173 carries lastyear--into a starting role.
Entering camp, hewas second on the depth chart behind Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winnerwho was a first-round bust in five seasons as a straight-ahead power back withthe Giants. The 5'10", 245-pound Dayne signed with Denver in 2005 andshowed flashes of the vision and slashing running ability needed to thrive inthe Broncos' zone-blocking scheme, a system similar to the one he played in atWisconsin, where he became college football's alltime leading rusher. Whilemired on the bench in New York, he envied the Broncos backs. "I used tothink about what I could do in this system," says Dayne, who signed athree-year, $3.3 million deal shortly after Denver released Mike Anderson, itsleading rusher in 2005, in a salary-cap move. "I just wanted to play here.But when they let Mike go, I knew I had a chance."
But Bell's andDayne's chances might be dwindling. On Monday, Shanahan surprised everyone byelevating a rookie free agent, 6-foot, 215-pound Mike Bell of Arizona, to theNo. 1 spot. While the coach says depth-chart listings "could change fromday to day or week to week," it's clear he's looking for someone to takefirm control of the job--and Mike Bell quickly impressed coaches with hisone-cut-and-go running style. Like Dayne, he played in a zone-blocking systemin college.
Mike Bell livedin Denver until he was 10, idolizing Terrell Davis--a sixth-round draft pickwhom Shanahan turned into a star. Projected as a middle-rounder, he dropped offNFL draft boards after disappointing performances in predraft workouts. But inthe first week of camp he ran more aggressively than Dayne and Tatum Bell (norelation), which earned him the right to start the Broncos' first preseasongame this Friday night at Detroit. "I was spinning yesterday when [thecoaches] told me," he said. "Ron and Tatum are great backs. They'regoing to be pushing, and I'm going to be pushing."
That may beShanahan's ultimate goal. On Monday he was asked what the veterans had to do tosupplant the rookie. "You have to be better than the other guy," thecoach said. "It's not very complex."