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Phillip Lindsay: The Third Most Valuable Bronco

The Offensive MVP is just getting started and he is already the third best Denver Broncos player on the roster heading into his second season.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

So after a long break for free agency and the draft, it’s time to turn our attention back to the Most Valuable Broncos. The scheme changes, draft, and free agency may change some of the final list. Remember that this is as much art as science, but to be as transparent as possible, I wanted to lay out how I made my list. There are 3 main aspects I considered:

1. Value to this year’s team and past performance.

2. Positional value

3. Salary compared to both past & expected future performance.

All three factors are important, but obviously this isn’t an exact science, so I look forward to seeing how Broncos Country disagrees with me.

Check out players 45-35 here.

Check out players 25-34 here.

Check out players 16-24 here.

Check out players 7-15 here.

Check out #6 here.

Check out #5 here.

Check out #4 here.

Let’s get started with a quick pivot. I’ve already waxed on about the best plays Phillip Lindsay gave the Broncos last season. If you haven’t already seen that, check it out here. It was a blast to write. Today will be a little less gawking at his insane rookie runs and a little more focusing on what to expect going forward.

How will Lindsay fit the 2019 offense?

It doesn’t take much to realize the 2018 San Francisco 49ers were a complete mess. They were bad enough to earn the 2nd pick in the NFL Draft, after all. So why did John Elway hire Rich Scangarello?

Check out how a pull and receiver motion frees the runner here.

Schematically, the Kyle Shanahan offense is one of the best in the league. It’s why a lot of the film nerds continue to hold Shanny in such high regard despite his lack of wins as a head coach. In hiring Scangarello, Elway is hoping the Broncos new O will contain the same Chess board brilliance, only with better pieces.

One of the ironic things about the Shanahan offense in the current passing era is how the run game is such a fundamental part of his scheme. The play action designs are built to mirror the run designs, even more than most other NFL offenses. It’s a systemic goal to have that marriage between the run and passing game.

This will only help the running backs.

A Shanny staple to get the back on the perimeter.

The play above is a variation of the standard outside zone. Pierre Garcon (15) is tasked with containing the edge player so Joe Staley (74) can pull around and get to the perimeter. Jimmy Garoppolo tosses to the back, whose job is to head for the sideline and get as many positive yards as possible. The end result is a play that tests a defense’s speed, as well as its ability to contain and pursue the ball in space. If they aren’t up to the task, it’s an easy play to dial up time and again out of different looks. The Shanahan system takes it one step further, though.

If Garoppolo had better placement on this throw, it’s free yards.

Later in the game, Garcon moves to pin a defender inside as Joe Staley pulls to lead block on the perimeter. This time, Garoppolo fakes the toss to Alfred Morris and quickly moves to hit George Kittle, who has green grass in front of him on a slant route. The pass is incomplete, but not because of any issue with the play design.

Throughout the 49ers’ tape, there are instances of play action designs built off of Shanahan staples in order to catch a defense in a real bind. Linebackers have no choice but to respect the run, which opens up the passes in the space they vacate. If they overplay the pass, the running back will find open lanes to rush through.

It isn’t only play action, though. The Shanahan (and its cousin the McVay) system also utilizes jet motion by the receivers to force backers into a similar conundrum. Take this play against the Vikings:

Motion creates the space Morris needs to make a dent in the Vikings D.

Eric Kendricks is caught in a losing situation here. By respecting the jet sweep, he’s making Staley’s job easy for him. A block by Garrett Celek (88) on Danielle Hunter (99) and Alfred Morris simply has to follow the play design for a big gain.

Now imagine what Lindsay could do with the same deception giving him room at the second level. The Bill Musgrave offense used plays like the ones above rather sparingly in 2018. One of my biggest complaints in 2018 was how far too often the play caller turned away from the strongest parts of his system, and how he seldom maximized his best personnel. If Rich Scangarello is anything like the coach he worked under, that’s about to change in a big way.

Watching Lindsay on tape, it’s easy to appreciate the things that made him such a sensation last year. His ability to cut on a dime and accelerate to top speed is special and should only shine brighter with a coordinator who can help him get into space. He’s also a lot stronger than his 190 lb playing weight leads most to believe, able to push the pile in order to fight for extra yards when necessary.

Where can Lindsay improve?

Looking back at the top 10 running backs from 2018, Football Outsiders’ metrics really puts a spotlight on one of the bigger areas of weakness Lindsay displays on tape. He’s among the top 6 running backs in the NFL by FO’s DYAR and DVOA numbers, but only 22nd in success rate, a measurement used to represent a players consistency. Now, of course part of Lindsay’s issue came because the Broncos offense cratered after Emmanuel Sanders was lost for the season. The only part is because Lindsay is a bit of a boom or bust running back.

Take his game against the Steelers, for example. Lindsay finished the game with 14 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown. He averaged almost 8 yards a carry, but if you subtract his 10+ yard carries, he had 11 carries for 34 yards. Don’t get me wrong, Barry Sanders was a boom/bust back and those big plays are a huge weapon the Broncos are lucky to have. A back who can threaten to house any carry opens up other facets of the offense, but if Scangarello can turn more of Lindsay’s 1-2 yard gains into 3-4 yarders, the offense won’t be forced into so many 2nd and 8’s or 3rd and longs, which will lead to less punts.

Take out his two 10+ yard runs against the Texans and Lindsay averaged 1.8 yards per carry.

The other big area where Lindsay could really improve is in the passing game. He’s an underrated pass blocker, but lost snaps in 2018 to Devontae Booker in part because his route running was rudimentary. This isn’t a big surprise, as most college backs aren’t asked to do much as receivers beyond catch the ball in the flats and make the most of them, but Lindsay could go from a Pro Bowl player to an All-Pro if he can better master this side of the game.

If he can do this, he’ll give Denver’s quarterbacks an outlet receiver in space who is too quick for most linebackers and safeties to deal with. This would also give Scangarello ways to utilize two running back sets where Royce Freeman and Lindsay can play off of one another, similar to how the Chargers use Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.

Sounds great, right? It’s easier said than done.

If Lindsay can grow into a better receiver, he’ll become a weapon that has to be accounted for at all times.

Final thoughts

Some in Broncos Country were troubled by my prediction last week that Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay could wind up in something akin to a 1A-1B scenario in 2019. I stand by it and think the offense would only be stronger for it, similar to the 2005 Broncos with Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell.

If he can manage to stay healthy, Freeman will probably give the Broncos a consistent 3-6 yard runner who excels at finding cutback lanes in the zone scheme, while Lindsay is the homerun threat. An arrangement where Freeman eats some of the carries against heavier boxes would also give Lindsay fresher legs to make the most of ideal opportunities to show off the strengths of his game. The two would feed off each other and give the Fangio regime a reliable stable of backs to build the rest of the offense around.

Let’s hope it comes to fruition.