In the 2020 offseason, the Denver Broncos’ decided to zig to the NFL’s zag in regards to the running back position. With more and more joining the side of the ‘running backs don’t matter’ camp, the 'devalued' perception of the position in today’s NFL, from an analytical perspective, has become hyperbolic.
GM John Elway spent premium free agency dollars to obtain former Los Angeles Chargers first-round pick Melvin Gordon. It was a move met with question marks not only due to paying a running back a two-year, $16 million dollar contract — with $13.5M guaranteed — but if there was one position on the Broncos offense that was ‘fine’, it was at running back.
Already rostering back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher and hometown stud Phillip Lindsay, it didn’t seem like the Broncos needed to pay Gordon or any running back a big contract, but alas Elway did just that.
Given the shorter term of the deal and obtaining Gordon on the backend of his ‘prime’ years, the contract did keep Denver from using a top-100 draft pick on a running back. Still, some criticism is warranted given how easily running backs can be found especially considering players at the position are typically the most prolific on their rookie contracts.
Inconvenient Truth: Lindsay has Shortcomings
Despite the comments from Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur that he might deploy two-RB sets from time to time next season (which I would argue taking better pass catchers or blockers off the field for an additional runner is not smart), how the Broncos divvy up carries for Gordon and Lindsay will be one of the more interesting storylines for Denver next season.
Lindsay has been a really good back for the Broncos over the past two seasons, especially when factoring in his undrafted pedigree, but it does seem that the team doesn't believe he is a true bell-cow. Is that a negative for Lindsay, though? Across the NFL, the bell-cow is going the way of the dodo in favor of running back by committee or RBBC approach.
With running backs needing to be used in different niches, having backs that offer different skill-sets that can complement each other, while paying less for multiple backs instead of one true bell-cow, appears to be the direction of moneyball in today’s NFL. Will this be the case for Lindsay and Gordon?
Lindsay, meanwhile, for being a smaller, faster back, is really a paradox. Given his skill-set, many assume (wrongly) that Lindsay is a good back at breaking runs outside the tackles or that he's a dynamic receiving threat.
Blame the wrist injury he was recovering from last offseason or not, but as a pro, Lindsay has shown very little as a receiver. His hands and his route running are limited and, given his size, his ability to take on a free rusher as a pass blocker is limited despite his willingness to block.
Where Lindsay is really impressive is rushing between the tackles and especially in the A-gaps. His mixture of burst, patience, and vision make him a fantastic up-the-middle runner despite his small size.
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Gordon Offers Goal-Line & Passing-Game Prowess
Gordon was paid a large contract, so there is no doubt he will likely get the first crack at the RB1 spot in Denver. Gordon is a strong goal-to-go back that can find the end zone on top of being solid in the passing game both as a receiver and blocker.
He isn’t going to confuse anyone for Christian McCaffery or Austin Ekeler in the passing game, but he provides more than Denver has had at running back through the air than the team has had in quite some time.
Having both Gordon and Lindsay does guarantee that the Broncos can go with the hot hand and be safe if one gets dinged up and misses time, but how the two backs will complement each other and what their defined roles will be, if any, remains a mystery until it shows itself on the field.
Also, the fact that both are vying to be RB1 can only be a good thing. A little competition can go a long way for the Broncos at running back.
The Bright Side
The good news is, Broncos have two starting-caliber running backs in Gordon and Lindsay, but unlike most other positions, having two or more good backs isn’t as much of a benefit as having, say, two great receivers or two great edge rushers or two great safeties (something the Broncos have which creates synergy on the field while putting the opponent in a schematic bind).
Paying Gordon that large contract wasn’t an astronomical deal or incredible decision, but it was a short-term move designed to gives the Broncos an upgrade in the passing game and red zone. The addition also means the team can better roll with the hot hand if need be during a game or as the season progresses.
Neither Lindsay or Gordon are top-10 running backs in the league right now, but the duo gives the Broncos backfield an extremely high floor. Denver isn’t likely to earn an All-Pro bid at running back, but a Pro Bolwer or two? That is possible.