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3 NFL Draft prospects who could replace Melvin Gordon

If George Paton elects to cut ties with his RB1, these backs make sense for the Broncos.

Nothing lasts for long in the NFL, and no position embodies this truth more than running back. The gratuitous violence in the trenches wears on ball carriers, who are often 100 lbs. lighter than the men dragging them to the ground. If the back is so fortunate to break into the open field, one wrong cut can slice into an ACL, altering a career’s trajectory.

If a back survives the churn and finds his way to an overdue payday, one mistake can change everything. Which brings us to Melvin Gordon, who was arrested for driving under the influence four days before the Broncos’ game against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots.

Gordon pleaded not guilty to the DUI and speeding charges. In early January 9News’ Mike Klis reported a disposition was set to continue March 10th at the request of Gordon’s attorney Robert Malen. He cited new information, and added that a subpoena may need to be issued. A pre-trial hearing is set for April 2nd with a jury trial scheduled for April 8th.

It’s necessary to mention that it is entirely possible Gordon wins the case, faces no discipline from the NFL, and continues his career with the Broncos. In his first year in orange and blue, he played in 15 games and finished with 1,144 total yards and 10 touchdowns.

There also remains a distinct possibility the Broncos’ new general manager could see an expensive 28-year-old running back and move on if the opportunity presents itself. George Paton didn’t sign Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, $16 million deal, John Elway did. A DUI conviction could lead to a suspension from the NFL and Klis reported the Broncos would have the right to Gordon’s remaining guarantees.

And if he’s suspended to start the 2021 season, the Broncos would have the right to void his $4.5 million fully guaranteed salary on his $7 million payout for 2021.

Essentially, the final year of the contract could be wiped out which would mean the Broncos and Gordon would to have to agree to a new deal. Which would also figure to be a new deal at reduced money. That’s one dot leading to another but leads to the reason why Gordon didn’t take his plea on December 14. Only a finding of not guilty would allow him to maintain his 2021 guarantees.

After reaching out to Pro Football Focus’ Brad Spielberger and Over The Cap’s Nick Korte, it is clear that the Broncos can not void anything until Gordon’s trial. Due to the timing of the upcoming trial, it seems unlikely Paton will know with certainty what Gordon’s status is before the opening days of free agency. This dramatically helps Gordon’s odds at remaining on the roster, but it does not guarantee it.

If the Broncos are planning for 2021 and beyond, it should already be clear they are quickly approaching a crossroads at the running back position. Both Gordon’s and Royce Freeman’s contracts have a single year remaining before they become Unrestricted Free Agents. Phillip Lindsay is likely to return this season as a Restricted Free Agent, but the one-year deal expires after Denver’s season ends.

Questions about Gordon only increase the odds Paton takes a back in the NFL Draft. I’ve already looked at the Vikings draft history since 2007, but today I wanted to look at three backs who could intrigue the Broncos as potential Gordon replacements.

Rhamondre Stevenson - Oklahoma

Big Boi

Stevenson didn’t follow the typical path of an NFL Draft prospect. He took a year off from football and went the Junior College route, then spent two years discovering his way to Norman. In 2019, he found himself splitting carries with Jalen Hurts and Trey Sermon until a failed drug test led to a suspension from the College Football Playoffs and part of his Senior season.

I’ve seen all sorts of listed weights for Stevenson, from as low as 220 lbs. all the way up to a double bacon cheeseburger shy of 250. My understanding is the 23-year-old dropped weight before his final season in Norman, and it looks like right decision as the added quickness will help him in the league.

Oklahoma’s offenses utilizes a mix of gap and zone blocking, so it’s easy to see how Stevenson would fit into the Broncos’ offense. Lincoln Riley is pretty good at drawing up and making the most of his running game, and Stevenson’s vision stands out on his film. He displays patience behind the line of scrimmage and does a nice job manipulating angles to create opportunities. He combines that with the size and power to barrel through defenders to make the most of minimal gains.

With just 28 catches over his Sooner career there remains questions about what Stevenson can do on passing downs in the pros. He’s a solid blocker with the play strength to become a better one in time. I suspect he’d serve as an adequate check down target and the thunder to Lindsay’s lightning on the Broncos.

Kylin Hill - Mississippi State

Third down back+

Hill opened the Mike Leach era with 8 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown to go with 7 rushes for 34 in the Bulldog’s season-opening upset over LSU. It’s the highlight of his season: an opening drive injury knocked him out of week two and the Kentucky Wildcats shut him down in week 3. He was suspended for the Texas A&M game and was “unavailable” for MSU’s game against Alabama. He opted out of the remainder of the season in November.

2020 was a nightmare for just about everyone, so I’ve made a point to watch 2019 film this year when given the opportunity. In a different system and given ample opportunity to carry the ball, Hill broke out for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns in Joe Moorhead’s spread scheme.

If Hill can recapture his 2019 form as a professional, he’ll find a home in the NFL. He’s the smallest back on this list, but displayed good contact balance and a willingness to churn his legs to maximize carries. He’s not a long speed type of burner, but did show solid lateral quickness to make a backer miss in tight quarters. His contributions to the passing game are what intrigue me most: across both years I studied, he displays very good hands for a back and the ability make catches outside his frame. He’s also a solid pass protector.

Whether Gordon’s on the 2021 roster or not, Hill could factor into the Broncos’ backfield rotation on passing downs. Pat Shurmur wants to throw the ball, so much so that Denver still threw 57% of the time last year with Brett Rypien, Jeff Driskel, and Kendall Hinton playing in four games.

In a normal year, I would say meetings will have a huge influence on Hill’s appeal to teams. Thanks to Covid-19’s impact on the Combine and visits, I suspect it will hurt him without the ability to meet with suitors face-to-face. Decision-makers will need to feel comfortable with a back who quit his team as a sophomore in high school and the rumors of frustration with Leach’s coaching staff.

Javonte Williams - North Carolina

Hulk Smash

The way defenders bounce off Williams’ rocked up physique is reminiscent of a Bruce Banner rampage. The Tarheel’s contact balance is the best in recent memory and he combines it with deceptively good athleticism. With an offensive line that is generously described as “bad,” the 220 lb. wrecking ball received plenty of opportunities to make a man miss to rumble his way to a positive gain.

One thing that makes Williams such an intriguing fit is how clean the projection is into the Mike Munchak blocking scheme. Phil Longo’s North Carolina offense utilized similar concepts like the pin and pull, power, inside zone, and outside zone. It’s clear Williams has the vision to make the most of the concepts. The backfield of Williams and Michael Carter was also a foundational part of the Tarheel passing attack, which gave the 20-year-old opportunities to run the routes Shurmur would demand of him. He’s also a viable check down target and reliable blocker, so it isn’t hard to imagine him in a feature role.

Williams’ parents had to deal with criticism because “Pookie” tackled other kids when he was as young as five, so it should be no surprise he played linebacker most of his high school career. He inflicts punishment, the hammer beating on 11 nails. While the running style may bring with it questions about his durability, thanks to the split duties with Carter during his collegiate career, Williams only has 416 touches on the odometer as he enters the NFL.