ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos will soon discover if Jamaal Charles is still Jamaal Charles.
Coach Vance Joseph said he’ll take the bubble wrap off the veteran running back sometime this preseason, but he isn’t sure if that will be against the 49ers, Packers or Cardinals.
Asked if Charles is running out of time to make the team because he hasn’t been getting as many handoffs as the Broncos’ other running backs at training camp, Joseph shot down that notion with a curt “No, he’s not.”
Joseph has said all along he’ll take it slow with Charles, but he did acknowledge that yes, he probably has to see Charles play in the preseason to keep him on the 53-man roster.
“He’ll eventually play,” Joseph said. “It depends on the docs and how he’s feeling.”
Charles chose the Broncos for his comeback following two years of knee troubles that led the Chiefs to release their all-time leading rusher in a cost-cutting move over the winter. He insists on calling his ouster a “firing” and said he looks forward to facing his former team on Oct. 30 in Kansas City and New Year’s Eve in Denver.
When he arrived at training camp for his physical last month, Charles was told he had no medical restrictions, but Joseph said he would be cautious nevertheless and ease Charles into action with an eye toward having him fresh and fit come September.
“He’s been injured for a year and a half, and it’s our job to get Jamaal as healthy as he can be,” Joseph said last month, noting, “If he gets back to being Jamaal, we’ve got something special there.”
Charles’ route-running and rushing abilities would add a spirited option for new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy no matter which quarterback, Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, wins the starting job — the only bigger question facing the Broncos this summer than Charles’ health.
Tossing a wrench into the running back mix, however, is Devontae Booker, who was pushing for the starting job when he showed up at training camp with a sore wrist he’d hurt in OTAs only to learn he needed surgery on a broken bone. He’s out until next month. The Broncos responded by signing another veteran free agent, Steven Ridley, who has played for five teams in three seasons since leaving New England, where he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012.
With fellow veteran free agent Bernard Pierce sidelined by a hamstring injury most of camp, Ridley has carried a heavy workload in his bid to make the roster. He’s been sharing snaps with starter C.J. Anderson, veteran Juwan Thompson and impressive rookie De’Angelo Henderson, whose 41-yard touchdown run sealed Denver’s 24-17 preseason win at Chicago on Thursday night.
Charles said he’s comfortable with his new team, confident in his knees and cool with his situation as he watches Anderson bounce back from his knee injury in 2016 and sees Ridley and Henderson impressing the coaching staff.
“If they go out there and look better than me, oh well, they’re better than me,” Charles said. “My job every time I touch the field is just to try to outshine them, too.”
Charles piled up 9,717 yards from scrimmage with 63 touchdowns in nine seasons in Kansas City while amassing a 5.5-yard-per-carry average, best in NFL history. But a career that looked as if it would land Charles in the Hall of Fame was derailed the past few years by injuries that cut short several seasons in his prime.
He played in just eight games over the past two seasons after tearing his right ACL in October 2015, leading the Chiefs to cut him this winter to save $6 million in salary cap space.
Charles quickly signed a one-year deal worth up to $4 million with their AFC West rivals and declaring that he’d long admired John Elway and had always wanted to play for the Broncos and he’ll get that chance soon.