Broncos Training Camp Battles: Two Vets Under Threat by Rookie RBs

The Denver Broncos will host an explosive running back competition this summer.
May 23, 2024; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Blake Watson (43) and running back Tyler Badie (36) and running back Audric Estime (37) and running back Javonte Williams (33) look on as full back Michael Burton (20) runs a drill during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
May 23, 2024; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Blake Watson (43) and running back Tyler Badie (36) and running back Audric Estime (37) and running back Javonte Williams (33) look on as full back Michael Burton (20) runs a drill during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports / Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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One of the most intense and thrilling Denver Broncos training camp battles is in the backfield. The competition is set to reach a fever pitch with the additions of fifth-round pick Audric Estimé from Notre Dame and undrafted rookie Blake Watson from Memphis.

The playstyles of Javonte Williams and Estimé and Jaleel McLaughlin and Waston are so similar that each man could be fighting for their football life. Samaje Perine, who excelled in the passing game in 2023 but showed little promise on the ground, could be the odd man out.

Let’s delve into two head-to-head competitions set to ignite this summer between these dynamic players. 

Williams vs. Estimé

Drafted in the second round in 2021 out of North Carolina, Williams was brought in to complement and eventually replace then-starting running back Melvin Gordon. However, just three years later, it seems that now the Broncos could be preparing to replace Williams in the form of Estimé.

Both backs' playstyle is about running through defenders rather than around them, and both have excelled in bulldozing and dragging the opposition with them. In Williams' rookie season, he led the league in broken tackles as a running back with 76, using his strength and aggressive running style to hammer defenders.

Fast forward to 2024, and Williams isn’t the running back he was before, primarily due to suffering a three-ligament tear in his knee in 2022. When he returned, his explosion was lackluster, and his problems with vision were becoming quite evident. It's possible he could bounce back, but Estimé's potential impact on the team's running game may push him out.

Estimé mirrors Williams in playstyle, but his knees are intact, and he has much better vision. The major drawback for Estimé is his speed, as he ran a 4.7 40 at the NFL Combine.

While this is an issue, Estimé wasn’t drafted for his blazing speed but rather for his ability to be a battering ram in short-yardage situations and on the goal line. He was also solid in the passing game, with 26 catches for 277 yards in his two yards at Notre Dame and a 10.7-yard average per catch — a great skill to have in a Sean Payton offense.

All things considered, the potential impact of Estimé on the team's running game is significant, and he could potentially steal the starting running back role and literally run with it. 

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McLaughlin vs. Watson

Just like the boys above, McLaughlin vs. Watson is crucial to the future of Denver’s ground game. After discussing the “thunder” running backs, it’s time to examine which “lighting” back could edge out the other.

McLaughlin had 76 carries for 410 yards, a touchdown, 31 receptions for 160 yards, and two scores. His speed and explosiveness were on full display last season versus the New York Jets, where he took a dump-off for a 22-yard touchdown, and had a solid showing against the Chicago Bears with 104 scrimmage yards and a score. His quickness and burst make him a great complement to a Williams or Estimé. However, Watson is very similar.

Watson rushed for 3,298 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 928 receiving yards for six touchdowns. He's a versatile back with an almost identical build to McLaughlin but a few inches taller, 5-foot-9.

Watson also has experience returning kicks, making him a valuable option for special teams, which could significantly influence which running back sticks on the roster. Watson is also better at pass protection than McLaughlin, a skill that could earn him more snaps on offense.

What McLaughlin has that Watson doesn't is his experience in Payton’s system, which may give him a leg up in training camp.

The Takeaway

Denver’s backfield needs to be more of a factor in 2024 than it was in 2023 if the offense has any wish for success. With a rookie quarterback likely to be installed under center, taking the pressure off him by pounding the rock is essential.

The Broncos' running back battle could be the most explosive competition in training camp, and the offense definitely needs fireworks. 

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Dylan Von Arx

DYLAN VON ARX

Dylan Von Arx has been a Contributor to Mile High Huddle since 2022— SI.com's team website covering the Denver Broncos. Dylan also co-hosts the Orange & Blue View podcast on Saturday nights.