Devontae Booker
John Leyba, The Denver Post
Broncos running back Devontae Booker finds a hole during the second quarter of the team’s Week 11 loss to the Bengals.

The signs — some more subtle than others — have been there since April 30, 2016, when the Broncos “felt very lucky” after selecting Utah running back Devontae Booker in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

“We didn’t think he’d be there in the bottom of the fourth,” general manager John Elway said that day. “To be able to get him, a guy that we had second on our board at that position — I think he dropped because of some issues with his knee.”

Shortly after head coach Vance Joseph was hired in January, running backs Eric Studesville told a handful of reporters that he expected a significant Year 2 leap from Booker after he led the team in carries (174) and yards rushing (612) as a rookie. No matter the coaching swap, no matter the impending scheme changes. Booker, Studesville said, needed to and would do more.

“I’ve got to push him past where he is,” Studesville said. “If he’s the same as where he was last year, we’re not better. He’s got to be better.”

Then in August, as Booker recovered from wrist surgery and was still weeks from suiting up, Joseph listed him as the No. 2 running back on Denver’s initial depth chart. At the time, Joseph said what most had already expected — had they been following the signs.

“Book finished the spring as No. 2; he had a (heck) of a spring,” Joseph said. “Book was pushing to be the top guy.”

Since they drafted him, the Broncos have been pushing and grooming Booker to be their running back of the future. Sure, they signed C.J. Anderson to a four-year contract extension a month before they drafted Booker, but there is no guaranteed money due Anderson after this season. Meaning, the Broncos could cut ties at no cost and avoid paying the $4.5 million salary he’s due the next two seasons.

Booker missed the first three games of the season as he recovered from his wrist injury, but has gradually increased his playing time and production. And over the past few weeks, though their  record spiraled downward, the Broncos have continued to pull the curtain back on their future.

After starting the season as the No. 2 running back behind Anderson — Booker remains the No. 2 running back on the depth chart — they shared nearly the same number of reps in Weeks 9 and 10, losses to the Eagles and Patriots. But in the last two games, Booker has topped Anderson.

Against the Bengals, Booker played 48 snaps (59 percent of the offense) and carried the ball 14 times for 44 yards. Anderson played 30 snaps (37 percent) and had 13 carries for 37 yards.

Last weekend at Oakland, Booker again took the lead among the Denver running backs — 26 snaps (44 percent). Anderson played 19 snaps (32 percent).

“Year 1, a lot was going through my mind when I was out there on the field with protections and just playing-wise,” Booker said. “But this year it’s completely different. I know what to expect, know all the protections and everything like that. It allows me to go out there and just play fast.”

The comfort was what Studesville hoped Booker would find in his second season. It clicked sometime in the offseason, as the Broncos transitioned to a new coaching staff, but Booker continued to study up on his protections.

But while keeping his mind sharp, he also changed his physique.

“I put on more muscle,” he said. “Last year, I think I played at like 208, 209 (pounds). This year, I’m between 215 and 217. I definitely put on some muscle. Just helps me be able to take hits.”

In eight games this season, Booker has 46 carries for 162 yards (3.5 average) and a rushing touchdown. He also has 20 receptions for 204 yards (10.2 average) to rank as the fourth-best pass catcher on the roster. (Tight end A.J. Derby had 224 yards receiving this season, but he was waived by the Broncos and recently claimed by the Dolphins.)

After nearly each week, Joseph has fielded a question about Booker’s future, his potential, the plan to give him more touches, more opportunity. Typically, the coach offers a vague response, so as not to tip off his game plan.

But the signs are there.

“Just one week at a time, one game at a time,” Booker said. “I can say, ‘Yeah, I do want more touches.’ But whatever I do get, I just have to make the most of it and just go out there and play hard.”

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