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Broncos roster review: Royce Freeman

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Is there room for Royce Freeman in the backfield with Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Royce Freeman got more touches in his second year, but he still was RB2 behind Phillip Lindsay in 2019 just like he was in 2018. Lindsay (224) and Freeman (132) combined for all but one of the carries by a running back for the 2019 Broncos. Andy Janovich had that one carry. If you count Andrew Beck as a FB, then he had one carry as well.

Royce Freeman was a third round selection by the Broncos in 2018 (71st overall pick).

Experience: 3 years
Height: 6-0
Age: 24
Weight: 238 lbs
College: Oregon

Freeman missed time during his rookie campaign because of an ankle injury and he appeared to never fully recover from that in 2018. He touched the ball 144 times in 2018 and 175 times in 2019. He was much more involved in the passing game in 2019 with 50 targets and 43 catches (compared to 20 and 14 in 2018). His yards per carry went from 4.0 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019. The average carry in the NFL in 2019 was 4.3 yards. Meaning that Freeman was 0.5 yards below average.

The Good

Freeman is large running back. He is listed at 238 lbs, but he appears heavier than that to me. There are times when you need a massive running back to run over a defender and gain that extra half of a yard. During his career, Freeman has carried the ball 42 times in short yardage situations (needed 3 yards or less). He has gotten first downs (or touchdowns) on 25 of those carries (59.9%) - including 5 TDs. That sounds pretty good until you realize that the league average on short yardage runs was 64.8% over the past two seasons. So Freeman has been below average in short yardage situations (this includes goalline runs).

So how has he compared to Lindsay? Lindsay has converted on 66.1%. That is converting on 39 of 59 short yardage carries - ten of which went for touchdowns. But I guess there are times when Freeman, who weighs roughly 50 lbs more than Lindsay would be useful as a ball carrier.

Freeman was much better in the passing game than Lindsay. Not only was he a better pass blocker than Lindsay (see my most recent sack blame article), but he was much more sure-handed (and to my eye, a better route runner). Freeman only dropped two passes in 2019 - on 50 targets. Lindsay dropped six passes on 48 targets.

The Bad

Royce Freeman has turned into a plodder with limited ability to break tackles or extend runs. His vision appears to have gotten worse and he has not shown much promise in terms of extending runs since his rookie season before his injury. Freeman had one carry of 20 or more yards in 2019. He had 13 carries that went for 10 or more yards. So 10% of his runs went for 10 or more yards, but only 0.8% of his carries went for 20 or more.

For comparison Lindsay had seven of 20 or more and 22 of 10 or more. Like Freeman, only 10% of Lindsay’s carries went for 10 or more, but 3.1% went for 20 or more. So in 2019 Lindsay had four times the frequency of 20+ yard carries that Freeman had. FWIW Melvin Gordon had 162 carries in 2019 and only two of his carries went for 20 or more yards (1.2%) while 14 went for 10 or more (8.6%). Gordon is not a good comparison because he was playing behind a different offensive line than Freeman and Gordon held out for part of the year in 2019. That being said, I would not assume that Gordon will be the short yardage back in 2020 just because he is bigger than Lindsay and shiftier than Freeman.

My opinion

Pat Shurmur generally does not split the carries between two running backs. He is more of an old school play caller in that he likes to give his main RB the lion’s share. He might change his approach with Lindsay and Gordon, but that leaves Royce Freeman out in the cold. If this were a normal year, I would expect Freeman to get showcased in the preseason to increase his trade value. Since there will be no preseason, I doubt Freeman has too much trade value and I would be elated if the Broncos were able to get a 4th or 5th round pick in exchange for him.

If we don’t trade him, I do not expect him to make the roster. He did not play special teams at all in either of his first two seasons, so he does not even have that going for him. There are currently six running backs on the Bronco’s roster. In his last stint as offensive coordinator, Shurmur kept anywhere from two to four running backs on the 53-man roster. It would not surprise me if Freeman is traded and Shurmur only keeps Gordon and Lindsay on the 55-man roster, but the roster math may be a little different this year with the pandemic. I do expect whoever is RB3 or RB4 to play special teams.

For a larger running back the Broncos also have Jeremy Cox, who the teamed signed to a reserve/futures contract at the end of 2019. Cox is listed at 6-0, 226 lbs.