The Denver Broncos hired George Paton as general manager this past January to resurrect an organization that has posted the worst five-year record in NFL history for a team coming off a Super Bowl championship. Paton described the Broncos as a ‘sleeping giant,’ referencing the team’s youthful talent with players like tight end Noah Fant and wideout Jerry Jeudy.
But before Denver’s dynamic playmakers can score touchdowns and boost fantasy football points, the quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater must resolve itself. As I’ve reported in nearly all my training camp journals, neither QB has separated himself as the clear-cut starter.
Meaning, the coaching staff — led by Vic Fangio — will likely designate the starter before the Week 1 regular-season opener on the road against the New York Giants.
So how does a Pat Shurmur-led offense with QB uncertainty effectively score points to support Fangio’s top-five projected defense?
Run the ball, with the back that Paton traded up to go get in the 2021 NFL draft. What level of production can Broncos fans reasonably expect from Javonte Williams? Let's dive in.
An Unlikely Road to the NFL
At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, the North Carolina native runs the ball with ruthless aggression. Williams consistently lowers his pads, keeps his legs moving almost as if he has something to prove to teammates and doubters alike.
Williams, who previously played linebacker in high school, converted to running back where he rushed for over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns before graduated as his school’s valedictorian.
Despite an impressive high school career, ‘Pookie’ only received one FBS offer and it was from North Carolina. At Chapel Hill, Williams carved out a career for himself rushing for over 2,297 yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry in three seasons. He also demonstrated his abilities as a pass-catcher, reeling in 50 receptions for 539 yards and four additional scores. His versatility and football acumen are what largely catapulted him to the second round of the draft last spring.
Throughout Denver's offseason training program, and now in training camp, there’s no doubt that the Broncos have a bonafide prospect in Williams. Although veteran RB Melvin Gordon will be the definitive starter in 2021, the early optics suggest that the running game will be emphasized as a priority.
Gordon has looked like a stud thus far in camp but has previously shown cause for concern with fumbling and he's in the last year of his contract with Denver. I can’t help but wonder if the man they call ‘Pookie’ will literally run away with the starting job by the mid-to-late stretch of the season.
Honoring Historic Broncos' RB Legacy
When a college back averages over 5.1 YPC over three seasons, NFL teams and scouts take notice, especially when that same player averages 10.8 yards per reception in the passing game. Is it any wonder that Paton fell in love with Williams, who’s been a model player for moving the chains?
After all, Paton’s previous success in scouting running backs for the Minnesota Vikings saw players like Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon all have NFL success.
But for me, Williams' aggressive and powerful style of running is eerily similar to Mile High running backs that came before him and remain beloved by all of Broncos Country. Denver saw major success with a host of dynamic backs before Phillip Lindsay’s became the first 1,000-yard rusher to reach the Pro Bowl as an undrafted rookie.
From Super Bowl 50 Champion C.J. Anderson to former first-rounder Knowshon Moreno, Broncos football used to be known for its unrelenting ground-and-pound style of running. Former Broncos head coaches Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak are largely credited as the innovators for the zone blocking scheme that produced prolific rushers like Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell, all of whom broke the 1,000-yard mark.
There was also veteran back Willis McGahee, who rushed for 1,199 yards behind Tim Tebow in 2011.
What does Williams have in common with all these great Denver backs?
Each guy mentioned ran with a chip on his shoulder and rushed the ball with confidence and determination. Many of those 1,000-yard rushers were also similar in stature and while they may not have all been 40-yard dash track stars, they consistently moved the chains and scored points.
Not only that, but when asked to catch the ball or pass block, they were all more than willing to prove their worth as reliable teammates.
An Additional Game Means More Opportunity
Early this year, the NFL announced the addition of a 17th regular-season game to be played this season. The long-anticipated addition was approved by the league’s owners as a result of having the option under the new collecting bargaining agreement.
This also meant that the preseason was pared down to three games compared to the traditional four. So, while the Broncos prepare to scrimmage the Vikings this week in Minnesota, they’ll also play their first preseason game on Saturday.
In 2021, the Broncos have their bye scheduled in Week 11 and have largely been considered to have a favorable schedule. Expect to see the three-headed monster of Gordon, Williams, and fellow newcomer Mike Boone throughout the season, but take note of the rookie’s utilization and stats.
For the second-round draft pick to have a 1,000-yard season, he'll need to average approximately 60 rushing yards per game. Sure, we can debate receiving yards and all-purpose yards as part of the rookie's equation, because versatility is one of Williams’ calling cards, but the point is clear to see.
Behind a powerful offensive line, there's little doubt that the former Tarheel can rush for 1,000 yards this season and more importantly, become the featured back by season’s end. Some in the Denver media have even suggested that both Gordon and Williams could have close to 1,000 yards each.
The last time that happened was in 2005 when Anderson broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier while Bell narrowly missed the milestone by 79 yards.
If that’s how it shakes out, Broncos Country can finally re-hang its hat on the fact that the ground-and-pound of Denver football has returned to the Mile High City.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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