Outside of a quarterback, there might not be a player that has received more unwarranted vitriol from the Denver Broncos fanbase than running back Melvin Gordon. By now, everybody should be familiar with Gordon's story and about how he became a Bronco prior to last season.
His $16 million free-agent deal — which made him the ninth highest-paid running back in the league — was highly scrutinized by fans near and far especially because the Broncos already had a fan-favorite in the hometown hero Phillip Lindsay.
Fans thought that the contract offered to Gordon, or something close to it, should have instead been offered to the homegrown player with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Lindsay was a phenom in Broncos Country, and it stung the fanbase — as well as Lindsay himself — that then-GM John Elway handed a high-dollar contract to an outsider with a history of fumbling the football and coming off of a down season to boot.
Gordon was well aware of the noise and it actually got to him.
"I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory. A lot of people love Phil here," Gordon told media following Thursday's training camp session. "It was as if I got drafted to the Packers with the how the fans would feel, how the media and how the people would feel. They feel like you’re taking away from their guy. It was in my head a little bit."
Gordon got off to a rocky start in 2020, opening the season with a critical fumble against the Tennessee Titans in the opener. Until his bombshell performance in Week 4 against the New York Jets, the uproar from the fanbase was getting louder and louder with each passing week.
It looked as if Elway missed on another free agent, overpaying in the process. But something clicked with Gordon towards the second half of the season, and his mindset shifted towards a greater goal.
"I got over it and I kind of dealt with what it was," Gordon continued. "I said we’re going to share this thing and we’re going to make our plays. His number is going to get called and mine will get called. We have to go out here and make some plays… We got put in a position where we could have made the playoffs if we could have gotten on a little streak. My mind kind of shifted more towards getting into the playoffs because it’s fun."
Though the playoffs were an unlikely possibility for a team struggling to find footing on the offensive side of the ball, Gordon turned it on down the stretch, rushing for nearly 600 total yards and five touchdowns over the last eight games of the regular season.
His performance made it difficult for Lindsay, who was nicked up frequently last season, to see the field on a consistent basis. Gordon was receiving bell-cow touches late in the year, and was performing like one as well.
Gordon ended up finishing the season with 986 rushing yards — the ninth-most on the season and right in line with his contractual payout — and nine rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a player that seemingly everybody has doubted whether the juice was going to be worth the squeeze when he signed his deal.
But 2020 is in the books, and this upcoming season will see the Broncos with another young ball-carrier that the team made a high-round investment in — rookie Javonte Williams out of North Carolina.
Denver traded up to select Williams with pick 35 overall in the 2021 NFL draft, with the direct intention of replacing Gordon after the season. Williams and Gordon are similar enough stylistically that the Broncos can move on, get younger and cheaper at the position going forward, all while showing the kid the ropes from a top player at the position.
Given the past history between Gordon and Lindsay, the latter of whom is now in Houston, is there any bad blood with the Broncos' decision to go get Williams?
"At the end of the day, you always compete," Gordon said. "They will always bring someone to take your job. That’s just the nature of the business. It is what it is. They brought Javonte in here to be a dog, and a dog amongst dogs. We’re going to come out here and we’re going to compete every day. I’m not really worried about that. I got too caught up in that with Phil. It’s not about that. It’s not about that at all."
Hopefully, the young blood of Williams can push Gordon to the level we saw him play at towards the back half of last season. If you extrapolate his last eight games out over a full season, while also adding a game to the mix, Gordon would have rushed for over 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns. Those totals would be near the top of the league, and would serve as a much-needed shot to the arm offensively.
It all comes down to Gordon's mentality going into the season and his ability to securely carry the ball without turning it over. He had four fumbles last season, the most in the league of any running back.
If Gordon can stay focused, hold onto the football, and continue to grind to be the best player he can be, the Broncos' offense has real potential to be an incredibly potent force on the ground in 2021.
"That’s what I’m going to come out here and do," Gordon finished. "[I have the] utmost confidence in myself to come out here and work, so when I touch the field, I do what I need to do when my number is called. I can’t be worried about who I’m competing with. That’s just the nature of the business. You’re going to compete every year…
"I’m going to always grind, and I’m going to always get it. I’m going to do what I need to do to help this team win. That’s why I’m here.”
Follow Lance on Twitter @SandersonMHH.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!