Broncos' 2020 Roster Report Card: Grading the Running Backs
Whatever the 2020 NFL season holds for the Denver Broncos, the running backs aren't going to be an impediment to the team's success. We'll grade this unit later on in this article but a quick perusal — even by the most surface-level fan — reveals a very talented RB stable in Denver.
Such is the Broncos' tradition. The current group exemplifies this tradition which includes all-timers like Hall-of-Famers Floyd Little and Terrell Davis at the very top of the list.
However, the Broncos' running back stable doesn't come without its fair share of controversy and storylines. There's a tectonic competition fixin' to unfold in training camp which will capture the attention of 100% of Broncos Country.
We know that new Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur likes to sling the rock to his running backs out of the backfield. They're featured very much in the passing game which means that the running backs this year could have an inordinate influence on the ultimate destiny of the 2020 Broncos.
Today, I'm breaking down exactly what the Broncos have in their running backs heading into 2020 and grading the position.
First, the names, which will be split up into three categories: roster locks, viable backups, and bubble guys. Let's get started.
The Names: Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon.
The Broncos said goodbye to Devontae Booker this past spring and hello to Gordon. Curiously, despite Lindsay becoming just the fourth Bronco running back in team history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and the first former undrafted player to ever do so in each of his first two NFL seasons, the Broncos felt they needed an upgrade at running back.
Enter Gordon, who arrived via free agency by way of a two-year, $16 million contract. The former S̶a̶n̶ ̶D̶i̶e̶g̶o̶ Los Angeles Chargers' first-round pick in 2015 brings five NFL seasons to the table and two Pro Bowl nods.
But Gordon is coming off a less-than-stellar final season with the Chargers after he held out for the first quarter of the season seeking a new contract. Because of the time missed in training camp, perhaps, he didn't have the greatest contract year and his fumbling woes of old reared their ugly head.
However, he still managed to post eight rushing touchdowns (one receiving and a little over 900 total yards of offense. Not terrible, obviously, but worthy of $16M? Only time will tell.
Lindsay and Gordon will duke it out for running back supremacy in Denver. For his part, Lindsay's last words on the subject were something to the effect of, "It doesn't matter who they pay for or who they brought in, they've got to get through me and it's very hard to do that."
Meanwhile, Gordon's last words were, "There can only be a No. 1 guy and a No. 2 guy. It is what it is. But I'm going to go work and get mine."
It's going to be fun to see how this competition takes shape. No matter in whose direction the pendulum swings, though, one thing is certain; the Broncos now boast one of the top-5 running back duos in the NFL.
The Names: Royce Freeman and LeVante Bellamy.
One of the reasons Gordon is now wearing Orange and Blue is because of Freeman's failure to launch last year. As a 2018 third-round draft pick, the Broncos expected Freeman to contribute in a much bigger way in his second year than he ultimately did.
Instead of his production rising, it fell in almost every measurable way. A drop in yards-per-carry (3.8), rushing yards (496), and touchdowns (three). Where he showed improvement was as a receiver where he hauled in 43 receptions for 256 yards and a touchdown.
However, that receiving production was of the dump-off variety and the Broncos wanted more, which is why Gordon was signed. However, the Gordon addition, although it can be viewed as a shot across Lindsay's bow, in truth, was more of an indictment on Freeman.
It's up to Freeman to determine whether he lets it affect his performance negatively or if he uses it as motivation to compete all the harder. Only time will tell but I have a sneaking suspicion that if Freeman fails to step up in Year 3, the college free agent the Broncos signed back in April will seize the day and perhaps the incumbent's roster spot.
Bellamy should have been drafted. Mile High Huddle's senior draft analyst Erick Trickel had a sixth-round grade on Bellamy coming out of Western Michigan this past spring.
Sixth-round caliber might not raise your eyebrow but remember, Lindsay went undrafted. There's no way of measuring heart and it's entirely possible, based on Bellamy's obvious play-making ability, he could be the next undrafted rookie to make the Broncos' roster out of camp.
Depending on how the roster math shakes out, I could absolutely see Bellamy marginalizing Freeman and being the third and final running back to make the 53-man roster — if the latter doesn't take the Gordon addition as fuel. If Freeman fades away emotionally as a result of the demotion, Bellamy will be there to take his place and role on the roster.
The Names: Khalfani Muhammad and Jeremy Cox.
Muhammad made some plays last summer in the preseason but it wasn't enough to chip away at Booker's place on the roster. A former seventh-round pick of the New York Giants, Muhammad has some play-making twitch but his diminutive size (5-7/174) is prohibitive.
He'll be restricted to gadget duty if he ever does find a way to stick on an NFL roster. But if the injury bug were to strike the Broncos' RB stable, Muhammad would be very handy to have waiting in the wings on the practice squad. That's probably the best-case scenario for him in 2020.
Cox went undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2019 and signed with the Chargers. He brings some serious strength and power to the table as a bruising 6-foot, 226-pound back.
Again, not necessarily a guy anyone would expect to overcome the draft pedigree of someone like Freeman or the Pro Bowl incumbency of Lindsay or the high-dollar investment in Gordon, but very handy to have around in a pinch.
My tonality on Freeman might have been a bit negative but when a running back of his caliber is the third- or fourth-best guy on the depth chart, you're dealing with an embarrassment of riches. That's what the Broncos have at running back.
Lindsay and Gordon, regardless of who emerges as the nominal starter (I'm betting on the former), represent as good a one-two punch as exists in the NFL. Not many teams can boast of having two Pro Bowlers in the backfield.
That covers the majority of the Broncos' grade here. Throw in Freeman and Bellamy, and versatile skill-sets of even the bubble guys, and the group is about as well-rounded as it gets in the NFL.
This is another position that could end up having an A+ type of impact on the Broncos' season. The only reason I don't give the RBs an A+ is because we don't yet know how Gordon is going to fit in the locker room and within Shurmur's offense — a scheme that we're yet to see on the field in whatever form it's going to take in Denver.
My bet is that Gordon takes to Denver like a duck to water and that the competition with Lindsay ends up bringing out the best in both talented backs. Lindsay checks the speed/explosion boxes and is a threat to house each and every touch, while Gordon can bruise between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield and pass protect.
I might still be scratching my head a little over John Elway's decision to pay Gordon but in so doing, the Broncos' GM pretty much covered all the RB bases. Combined with the acumen and proven resume of RBs Coach Curtis Modkins and this team is loaded at the position.