It was a sad day in the fanbase when the Denver Broncos rescinded Phillip Lindsay's restricted free-agent tender, parting ways with the 'Colorado Kid.' Alas, for whatever reason, Lindsay's talents were never fully appreciated in the Mile High City — despite his unprecedented Pro Bowl campaign and back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons — likely due to his diminutive size.
For a time, the veteran Melvin Gordon might have surmised that he'd vanquished Lindsay to be the Broncos' de facto No. 1 back. But like two ships passing in the night, as Lindsay departed for Houston, Javonte Williams arrived in Denver as the team's second-round draft pick.
And then there were two... again.
The Broncos have another marquee position battle shaping up at running back and this article is going to preview Gordon vs. Williams. We shall start with the incumbent.
Gordon was a first-round pick out of Wisconsin back in 2015 and went on to produce a few really good seasons for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. Despite producing just one 1,000-yard rushing season for the Bolts, he earned two Pro Bowl nods over his five-year stretch with the team.
However, when Austin Ekeler — a diminutive, former undrafted guy like Lindsay — stormed onto the scene in L.A., Gordon quickly found himself becoming marginalized. And after an impotent holdout in 2019, the writing was on the wall for Gordon who entered unrestricted free agency the following spring without a fight from the Chargers.
Meanwhile, L.A. paid Ekeler. Don't feel too bad for Gordon, though, because then-Broncos GM John Elway coughed up a pretty penny for the veteran's services, giving him $16 million on a two-year deal. Perhaps Gordon got the last laugh over Ekeler (though I'm sure they're buddies) by eclipsing his former backfield rival's average annual salary by $1.5M.
Gordon landed in Denver as no stranger to sharing a backfield. Lindsay was already entrenched as the man, however, that was only in the hearts of his teammates and Broncos fans. For whatever reason, the front office was never as enamored of the former CU Buffalo.
Gordon and Lindsay entered the 2020 campaign basically as co-starters. Despite missing just one start in his first two seasons with the club with 416 carries under his belt, Linsday skeptics always warned that his 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame was sure to deteriorate in the attrition of the NFL rigor.
Like a prophecy, those skeptical chickens came home to roost in Lindsay's third year as he dealt with multiple injuries throughout the 2020 campaign. This gave rise to Gordon, who took over the mantle as Denver's top running back.
Gordon finished just 16 yards shy of a 1,000-yard rushing season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring nine touchdowns on the ground. He also chipped in 32 receptions for 132 yards and another score.
Contributing north of 1,000 scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns in Year 1, while sharing the backfield with Lindsay, was an impressive body of work for Gordon. The only fly in the ointment? Gordon's 'fumblitis.'
He put the ball on the ground four times and each incident came at an inopportune time in the respective game. Compared to Lindsay, who's yet to fumble as a pro football player, it was somewhat jarring to fans to see Gordon's butterfingers in living color.
However, Gordon made up for it by being excellent as a pass blocker in third-down situations and as a receiver offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could trust out of the backfield. That aspect of Gordon's game never bloomed in Lindsay, which is no doubt one of the reasons he's no longer sporting the Orange and Blue.
Entering 2021, Gordon is highly motivated. Not only did the Broncos send a big message by spending a premium-round pick on a running back, but Gordon is in a contract year. It's possible that at 28 years old, he could garner one more sizable contract — whether from Denver or an outside team.
But Gordon will have to stave off the rookie — who is no joke and offers a similar skill-set to the Broncos as the veteran.
- Ball security
- Availability (has just one 16-game season as a pro)
Ace Up his Sleeve
Aside from his veteran wherewithal, if Gordon has a leg up in this competition, it's the bond and connection he has with Coach Shurmur. Shurmur was purported to be a big proponent in Elway's decision to throw big money at Gordon, and knowing his prized free-agent acquisition is entering a contract year, the coordinator could be inclined to feed him as much as possible.
Like Gordon, Williams arrives in Denver as no stranger to sharing a backfield. At North Carolina, Williams split carries with Michael Carter, who was also drafted this past spring in the fourth round by the New York Jets.
Williams (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) played three seasons at UNC but it was in his sophomore and junior seasons that he really stormed onto the scene as a bonafide NFL prospect. In 2019, he totaled 993 rushing yards and five touchdowns for the Tarheels.
As a junior this past season, Williams rushed for 1,140 yards and a whopping 19 touchdowns, while chipping in 25 catches for 305 yards and three scores. The rub, however, was that Williams only touched the ball 182 times last season.
In fact, Williams left the collegiate ranks with plenty of tread left on his tires, totaling just 366 carries at UNC. Producing at the level 'Pookie' did, while also giving way to Carter's 156 carriers for 1,256 yards and nine touchdowns, was impressive.
It made Williams a highly coveted NFL prospect. He ended up being the third back drafted behind Alabama's Najee Harris (Pittsburgh) and Clemson's Travis Etienne (Jacksonville), both of whom heard their names called in Round 1.
Going back to his final year at UNC, comparing Williams' junior body of work to Carter's, one gleaning jumps out. Carter may have averaged .7 yards-per-carry more than Williams, but the latter provided the Tarheels significantly more bang for the buck.
Williams scored 10 more rushing touchdowns than Carter did, despite only receiving one additional carry than his backfield rival. Translation: Williams is a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. The kid has a true nose for the end zone.
Williams is a tackle-breaking machine who looks to inflict damage to any foe who would seek to bring him down. Projecting his skill-set in Denver — the kid has the chance to be truly special in the Broncos' rich tradition of prolific rushers.
- 16-game endurance
Ace Up his Sleeve
If Pookie has an advantage over Gordon, it's his relative youth and lack of wear-and-tear on his body. In his four-year career at Wisconsin, Gordon totaled 661 carries, compared to Williams' 366. Throw in the veteran's 1,274 NFL carries over six professional seasons, and Gordon's tread is growing increasingly thin.
At just 21 years old, Williams has life on a plate. If he can assimilate Shurmur's playbook on the relative quick, he could plausibly leap-frog Gordon on the Broncos' depth chart at some point as a rookie.
This type of training camp competition almost always favors the veteran. NFL coaches are wired to err on the side of veteran competency and experience.
That paradigm isn't usually challenged unless the rookie in question is truly transcendent. Williams has the chance to be just that but the most likely outcome this summer is Gordon maintaining his perch atop the Broncos' depth chart while essentially splitting the first-team workload come fall football 50/50 with Williams.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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