Ranking the AFC West: Running Backs
The AFC West has always been one of the most competitive divisions on a year-to-year basis since the NFL-AFL merger, and 2020 figures to continue the tradition.
Home of the reigning Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs, a pair of teams dripping with potential in the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, and a team with one of the most well-rounded defensive units in the Los Angeles Chargers, the AFC West might push a pair of teams into the playoffs this year.
The Chiefs are the easy front runner for the AFC West crown seeing as they've won the division for five consecutive years and are returning 19-of-22 starters from a championship roster.
But the Broncos and Raiders have tried to mimic the blueprint the Chiefs laid out in 2019, bringing in a ton of explosive play-makers to try to keep up with one of the most dynamic offenses the league has ever seen. The Chargers still have a ways to go in order to light up the scoreboard, but the upgrades they've made to an already stellar defense could keep them competitive in these heated rivalries.
Every year, we at Mile High Huddle dive deep to break down the Broncos' division rivals. This time around, we're going to rank each team by position group in order to determine who has the best roster in the division.
This year we're going to rank each team by position group in order to determine who has the best roster in the division. These rankings will include not only the projected starters for each AFC West team, but also the depth of the unit as a whole.
Experience and playing time will also play a major role in these articles. Continuing our trek through the division, let's rank the running backs.
4: Los Angeles Chargers | Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelly
Let me make this abundantly clear right away; Ekeler is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in all of football. With 94 receptions for 993 yards and eight touchdowns last year, Ekeler put up wide receiver numbers as a running back. This was the biggest reason he signed a four-year deal as a restricted free agent earlier this offseason.
But as a runner, he leaves a lot to be desired. So does the depth of the Chargers running backs.
Jackson comes into year three with a combined 79 rushes for 406 yards and missed time last year with calf and hamstring injuries. In the time that he was on the field in 2020, Jackson averaged a gaudy 6.9 yards per carry as the team's third-string runner. But can he stay healthy this year?
Kelly is a solid option as a between-the-tackles runner that offers some receiving ability out of the backfield, but he is also a rookie fighting for a roster spot.
This is a very young group with no clear bell-cow player. While I love Ekeler as a player, his receiving ability out of the backfield isn't enough to boost this unit over the Chiefs.
3: Kansas City Chiefs | Clyde Edwards-Helaire, DeAndre Washington, Darwin Thompson
The Chiefs running back room took a major hit when 2019 postseason hero Damien Williams opted out of the season due to the pandemic. Had Williams remained with the team, the Chiefs would have had a tremendous backfield duo with him and rookie first-round pick Edwards-Helaire.
While I firmly believe that CEH will be the front-runner for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award because of his pass-catching ability out of the backfield, he still has to prove it on the field. The top back drafted this past April fits in perfectly with what the Chiefs like out of their backs, and head coach Andy Reid is on record saying that Edwards-Helaire reminds him of former Philadelphia Eagle runner Brian Westbrook.
Washington had a successful stint as a rotational runner in Oakland prior to jumping to Kansas City. A valuable chess piece on third downs, Washington should offer a great compliment to Edwards-Helaire, but he's not going to challenge for much more than a rotational piece once again.
I have the Chiefs here because aside from Washington, their depth is really non- existent. It's also a young and unproven unit at this point.
CEH can be a dynamic piece running and catching the ball, and his ability running routes out of the backfield should translate to the professional level almost immediately. He should see the lion's share of the touches at running back.
Losing Williams, who was remarkable in last year's postseason, is a huge detriment to the Chiefs dynamic offense. They would have been a notch higher had he remained with the club.
2: Las Vegas Raiders | Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard, Devontae Booker, Lynn Bowden, Jr.
Josh Jacobs burst into the scene as a rookie in 2019, rushing for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns while also catching 20 balls for 166 yards, narrowly missing out on winning the ORoY award.
Running behind a stellar offensive line, Jacobs turned heads across the NFL last season. He's also no slouch when it comes to pass protection, posting a 73.6 pass-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus.
Richard and the aforementioned Washington rotated behind Jacobs, with Richard being primarily used as a receiver on third downs. With a history as an underrated receiver out of the backfield, Richard fits in perfectly with Jacobs's weakness.
Booker, the ex-Bronco, offers a solid option as a third threat as well. Booker flamed out of favor in Denver, but don't let that dismiss his ability as a pass protector and catcher out of the backfield. However, his volume figures to be limited because of Bowden, Jr.
Word out of Vegas is that Bowden, Jr. — a rookie third-round selection — is going to be used as a gadget runner in various situations, potentially eating up whatever snaps are leftover from Jacobs and Richard. A dynamic runner that also has experience at receiver and quarterback, Bowden rounds out a very solid group that has a lot of big-play potential.
1: Denver Broncos | Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, LeVante Bellamy
A unit that features a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, the Broncos have one of the top duos in the entire league.
Lindsay is coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, a first from an undrafted running back. Gordon, also a former 1,000-yard runner, is coming in motivated to wash his hands of a down year in 2019. Both fit perfectly into the offense, but offer completely different skill-sets.
Fans can argue about the relative worth of Gordon's massive contract, but that's a moot point in reality. Gordon offers a receiving ability that Lindsay doesn't, and is one hell of a pass protector. They can both run between the tackles successfully, though Gordon is better suited for the true bell-cow role due to Lindsay's diminutive stature.
Lindsay is a quick-twitch runner that uses his slight frame and cutting ability to create slivers of daylight in the box, whereas Gordon uses more power as a true downhill runner. It's going to be fun watching this duo in tandem.
Freeman is a great spell back for these two because he plays so similarly to Gordon. An underrated receiver in his own right, Freeman did a fantastic job not only out of the backfield, but lined up out wide as a receiver. His pass blocking is also much better than Lindsay's.
The one wrench in the works here is Bellamy. An undrafted free agent, Bellamy has a chance to make the roster as a jitterbug runner. Though on the smaller side and not a great pass blocker, Bellamy could carve out a niche in the offense as a screen receiver and as a runner outside of the tackles.
This room has quality front runners, depth, and complementary skill-sets that make up one of the best groups in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report called Gordon and Lindsay the sixth-best pair of runners heading into 2020.
With a young QB in Drew Lock and an offense that likes to feature a heavy dosage of inside zone running plays, the Broncos need Gordon and Lindsay to keep the offense on schedule. It will be interesting to see how Pat Shurmur splits the touches between these two dynamic runners.