Kris Evans takes a look at the Denver Broncos running backs and what to expect this season.
Following my training camp preview last week I've turned my attention to positional groups. Starting this week by looking at the interesting state of the running back room.
There are new faces both on the field and the sidelines with ex charger Melvin Gordon signing during free agency and Pat Shurmur calling the plays as new Offensive coordinator. Familiar faces Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman return, heading into their third seasons in the NFL.
Who will the Broncos favour as their number one back? - The new man in Melvin Gordon III or stick with Phillip Lindsay, or share the carries between the pair and sprinkle in Freeman occasionally. The fourth back in the paddock Khalfani Muhammed was waived on July 27th as the roster was reduced to 81 due to the new protocol in response to the Covid 19 situation.
Here I'll take a closer look at the key players and coaches who will shape the running back plays this season.
There are not many superlatives that have not been used to describe Phillip Lindsay, the ex Denver South and Colorado Buffalo. Lindsay was a sparkplug of a player last year. He is the first undrafted free agent to run for over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons and was a pro bowler in his rookie year. These accolades are despite a significant wrist injury sustained at the end of the 2018 season. Despite the majority of his carries being bruising bursts up the middle of the offensive line Lindsay was the clear number one back in Denver last season. So, logically, everyone expects the Broncos to pay him at the level he has performed at, rather than the undrafted rate he will be paid this year (circa $900,000).
Lindsay worked hard for his yards last year and did not get as many opportunities to scorch to the outside and use his speed to his advantage. He was also a victim of the Broncos dour passing game as teams could afford to stack the box with defenders making it much more difficult for the number 30 to breakout. Phil ended the season with 1,011 yards with 7 touchdowns and an average of 4.5 yards per carry . He struggled in the receiving game, averaging 5.6 yards per reception down from 6.9 in 2018. In college he feasted for 11.2 yards in his senior season in 2017. This may have been down to the afore mentioned wrist injury he had operated on in the off season.
The Aurora man came into the league with a chip on his shoulder which has been the fuel for his aggressive and passionate performances. This off season has seen more fuel added to the fire, Lindsay has spoken about his feelings when he found out about Melvin Gordon signing. He told Ryan Koenigsberg from DNVR ' I was really upset at the beginning, I'm not going to lie'. Contract negotiations were due to begin in the off season and he suddenly saw a Pro Bowler from a conference rival land in town on a two year $16 million contract. This must have felt like a second kick in the teeth for Lindsay in his short career after the travesty of him not being drafted by anyone as a rookie.
Lindsay has also become a Father for the first time during the off season, you can't help but imagine that his focus on securing his families financial future is now crystal clear. He will want to earn this on the field and will be ferocious in his battle for superiority.
2019 couldn't really have got off to a worse start for Melvin Gordon III at the Chargers. He opted to sit out the opening of the season in lieu of him failing to secure a long term deal with the Bolts. Then his leverage disappeared as Austin Ekeler broke out in spectacular fashion and almost rendered Gordon the forgotten man of the team. Ultimately Gordon returned following week 5 and struggled to hit top form through the remainder of the season. The former Wisconsin Badger had set his sights on becoming one of the top earning running backs in the game, but ended the season heading to free agency due to the Chargers opting to go with Ekeler. Gordon rushed for 612 yards last year and got 8 touchdowns for an average of 3.8 yards. He caught 42 receptions for 296 yards for an average of 7.0 yards.
Gordon has an advantage over Lindsay in that he is more adept at converting the short touchdown runs when camped on the goal line. Melvin will look to show the Chargers what they are missing when he lines up against them twice this season. He has been getting close to his new teammates on social media before arriving in Denver prior to training camp and will aim to settle in quickly.
The prospect of Lindsay and Gordon sharing game time to compliment each others games, as Gordon did with Austin Ekeler with the Chargers, is an exciting one . Vic Fangio has hinted that there is plenty of action to be seen for the pair
'There's a lot of work to be had for the two of them'... It's pretty commonplace in the NFL now to have two backs share the duties'. Gordon has seen the potential for the pair to flourish.
'From what I've seen we can make a good one two punch'.
Lindsay has also acknowledged how a tandem can aid his long term health and allow him to play to his strengths.
After being acquired as a third round pick in 2018, Royce Freeman has not been able to transfer his college form into the NFL. The ex Oregan Duck has seen Lindsay overtake him in the pecking order and looks to only be a bit part player this year due to Gordon joining the ranks. Freeman is not as quick as Lindsay or as powerful as Gordon and as such will see the least game time in 2020.
Pat Shurmur has overseen some of the league's standouts backs over the last few seasons. Firstly as an offensive coordinator with the Vikings during Dalvin Cooks rookie year in 2017 and Saquon Barkleys first two years as head coach of the New York Giants. I would have bitten your hand off if you offered me him as offensive coordinator at the end of the 2019 season. Shurmur does not use a full back in his game plan reflected when Andy Janovich was traded to the Brown's. He also favours a bell cow who can catch the ball well. This leads to the assumption that Melvin Gordon III will be the starter in week one, offering the change of approach at the goal line and in the backfield. However, it is not as simple as that. Lindsay offers so much to an offense and will now have the bit between his teeth to seal a long term deal and achieve a third consecutive season of over 1,000 rushing yards.
The strength of our receiving corps has increased significantly. Jerry Jeudy offers a lot of promise and KJ Hamler will capture the attention of defenses with his blistering speed. Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant are also valuable targets. This presence will stop teams from simply stacking the box to stop the run game and could see the offense be the surprise package of the AFC West. If Gordon is favoured to pound the rock, one thing I will guarantee is Phillip Lindsay will not let this happen easily. I would prefer a one two punch approach which would see Gordon and Lindsay prosper as we saw with the New Orleans Saints with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The team motto in 2015 was 'iron sharpens iron' and this will be certainly be the case as the season progresses for Lindsay and Gordon.
Kris Evans @moominevans Broncos Europe