Sean Payton Touts Broncos RB Jaleel McLaughlin: 'It's Impressive'

Jaleel McLaughlin is building momentum entering Year 2 with the Denver Broncos.
Denver Broncos running back Jaleel McLaughlin (38) during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center.
Denver Broncos running back Jaleel McLaughlin (38) during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center. / Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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Despite emerging from the college ranks as the NCAA all-time leading rusher, Jaleel McLaughlin didn't hear his name called on draft day. The Denver Broncos wasted little time after the draft, signing him as a priority free agent.

McLaughlin would go on to help continue the Broncos' rich undrafted legacy, making the 53-man roster out of training camp. The Broncos didn't draft another running back this year, but they did sign a priority free agent in Blake Watson, who checks many of the same boxes that McLaughlin does.

Such is the way of the NFL. Each year, a player has to prove himself and sing for his supper, and that's even truer for a former undrafted player. On Tuesday, head coach Sean Payton talked about what he hopes to see from McLaughlin in Year 2.

“I think his continued growth," Payton said of McLaughlin. "You see him protecting the football and he is very disciplined as a change-of-pace route runner. I know he wants to continue to work on his role in the passing game."

McLaughlin is very, very smart. He's been well aware of Payton's history of running backs catching passes out of the backfield, dating back to his 16 years with the New Orleans Saints. Stars emerged under Payton in that span, including Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Alvin Kamara.

Payton is never left in the dark in terms of McLaughlin's ambition and willingness to contribute in the passing game.

"He’ll come up and wear me out asking for cut-ups and looking at certain routes," Payton said of McLaughlin. "He’s here at 5:15 [a.m.], even in the offseason, [and is the] first one here running in the weight room. By the time he’s at breakfast and most people are arriving, he’s put in a good hour and a half’s worth of work. It’s just the way he’s wired, and it’s impressive.”

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Indeed, McLaughlin impressed as an undrafted rookie last year. As the team's No. 3 running back, he dressed for all 17 games (three starts), totaling 76 carries for 410 years (4.5 avg) and a touchdown, while contributing 31 receptions for 160 yards and two more scores.

That's high-volume production that came out of a relatively low-volume share of touches. Entering 2024, McLaughlin is penciled in once again as the RB3, with Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine ahead of him on the depth chart.

But with a savvier and more passing-adept quarterback projected to be the Broncos' triggerman in first-rounder Bo Nix, it could lead to an uptick in touch opportunities for the running backs, especially a guy like McLaughlin, who can catch the ball. Despite a commitment to the rushing game on Payton's part last year, Denver's offense wasn't very productive on first or second down, leading to its horrendous numbers on third down with Russell Wilson at the helm.

The hope is that having a quarterback better suited to Payton's scheme, like Nix, will afford the Broncos a more fluid offense. If Nix can be a true extension of Payton on the field, as Drew Brees was for 15 years in New Orleans, it will be like a tide that raises the ships of the skill-position players around him.

Such an offensive evolution would spell good things for McLaughlin, even as the No. 3 running back. He might only be 5-foot-7 and 187 pounds, but nobody works or prepares harder than he does, and that twitchy explosion and speed he brings to the Broncos' offense has been unmatched.

McLaughlin's 2024 outlook is definitely on the rise.

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Chad Jensen

CHAD JENSEN

Chad Jensen is the Founder of Mile High Huddle and creator of the wildly popular Mile High Huddle Podcast. Chad has been on the Denver Broncos beat since 2012 and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.