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Breaking down the Broncos’ running back room

Is Javonte Williams running for OROY? Will Shurmur split carries? Who is RB4?

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It seems foolish to discuss the Broncos’ running back room without addressing a notable absence. This year’s stable is shaping up to look very different from 2020’s because the Colorado Kid has gone to Texas and the Broncos will replace him with a couple of new faces.

It’ll be weird to see Phillip Lindsay playing outside of Colorado, but it may be the best thing for all parties. After 2019 came to an end, John Elway hinted that the Broncos might give Lindsay a pay raise at the season-ending press conference, but instead they turned around and signed Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, $16 million deal.

To be fair, George Paton didn’t give any hint at a pay raise for Lindsay back in 2020, he just stepped into the aftermath. As a first year general manager, he simply made the decisions he thought were best for the ‘21 roster. He placed an original round tender on the undrafted free agent, which gave the Broncos the right to match any offer. While the right of first refusal didn’t guarantee the Broncos any picks if a team signed Lindsay, it gave them a chance to match the deal. This could have influenced team’s willingness to negotiate with Lindsay.

When the Broncos signed Mike Boone to a 2-year contract worth $3,850,000, it signified Lindsay’s role wasn’t about to grow under the new regime. A day later, the Broncos rescinded Lindsay’s original round tender, making him a free agent. Days later he signed with the Houston Texans for $3,073,529 or slightly less than the 2nd round tender of $3,384,000. Boone will count for $1,800,000 against the cap in 2021, or $333,000 less than Lindsay’s initial $2,133,000 original round tender.

A little over a month after Lindsay signed with the Texans, the Broncos traded up to draft North Carolina’s Javonte Williams in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. It marks the beginning of a new era in Denver.

The rotation

There could be a battle for a starting job between Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. You don’t trade up to the top of the 2nd for a running back if you don’t expect him to contribute immediately, and everything I’ve seen and heard while studying the former Tarheel suggests he’s up to the expectations.

If Melvin Gordon is healthy, my current expectation is that he serves as Pat Shurmur’s lead back with Williams and Boone cleaning up the remaining carries. For most of Shurmur’s career as a playcaller, he’s shown a clear preference for a clear-cut starter. He split the backfield duties between Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata after Dalvin Cook was hurt in 2017, but Saquon Barkley had 187 more carries than his backup in 2019 and 211 more in 2018. That sort of distribution is fairly typical if you look at Shurmur’s earlier offenses with the Eagles, Rams, and Browns.

Just as we did last year, I expect the Broncos coaching staff to sell fans on how they’ll get Williams and Gordon on the field together. They did this with Lindsay and Gordon a year ago, and it meant little once the games began. Shurmur used personnel packages with 2 backs on 78 plays last year. That’s less than 8% of all offensive snaps.

Melvin Gordon missed one game due to precautions over a sore throat, but in the 15 games he was active he never logged less than 45.9% of the snaps. If he’s healthy, I expect Shurmur to trust the veteran for passing down duties, even if Williams and Boone eat into his rushing attempts.

New Faces

Javonte Williams

I wrote a film breakdown on “Pookie” earlier this offseason and hope you check it out. I am very high on him. He was my RB1 for the Broncos’ system going into the draft ahead of guys like Najee Harris and Travis Etienne.

Williams is a very good athlete with elite balance, very good agility, and good explosiveness with elite play strength that routinely shows up on carries as well as when he’s asked to block. He combines very good contact balance with a dangerous spin, stiff arm, the vertical to leap over defenders, and the ability to string moves together. He’s reliably protects the football with just one fumble across three seasons with UNC.

His ability to quickly shudder step and explode into a break show offer promise that he’ll develop into a good to very good route runner with NFL coaching. Beyond his separation quickness, Williams displays natural hand-eye coordination to pluck a ball from the air away from his frame, as well as the strength, frame, and attitude to become a dependable pass protector.

Williams’ biggest weakness is his “vision.” He can become impatient and look to bounce too early when he ought to wait and leverage his blocks a tick longer. He has a tendency for bouncing wide in the second and third level that will probably need to be honed in the NFL against faster defenders.

The other area where “vision” comes up is how Williams appears to be a linear decision-maker. During crowded if/then situations when he’s forced to make a quick decision, he can leave yards on the field as he focuses on one defender rather than feeling the pursuit. This issue will show up most on concepts like outside zone. The good news is that the Broncos run so many gap concepts that this issue should be mitigated a good bit.

Mike Boone

Is he really going to contribute as a running back or is he just a core special teamer? Right now it’s hard to say. When George Paton spoke about Boone in March, it seemed his role would grow in Denver.

“Mike Boone—I’ve been with Mike the last three years with the Vikings. Mike Boone is a self-made man. Free agent out of Cincinnati. We signed him as a running back, obviously. He earned the team playing special teams. Four phases—played him four phases on special teams and he’s one of the top special teams players for the Vikings. He was playing behind [Vikings RB] Dalvin Cook, so he didn’t have a lot of opportunity, but when he did have the opportunity, he really produced. I think he’s going to help our room. He’s going to add some special teams to the offensive side of the ball, which we lack. I’m really excited to have Mike Boone here.”

Through his first three years in the NFL, Boone has logged 523 special teams snaps. He’s played north of 50% of all ST snaps in both 2019 and 2020, and forced a fumble against the Houston Texans last season.

Boone has touched the ball 78 times for 407 total yards and four touchdowns so far in the NFL. He hasn’t been credited with a fumble. 66.6% of his NFL touches came in 2019. Boone started two games and touched the ball 44 times across the last three weeks of the season following an injury to Dalvin Cook. Alexander Mattison was already inactive due to an ankle injury suffered in the lead up to week 15.

I recently went back over Boone’s extended run on offense to figure out how he fits the Shurmur system. He’s a good athlete with good burst, agility, quickness, and balance. He also displays better lateral mobility than his 2018 testing numbers hint at.

Standing 5’9 and just under 210 lbs. Boone has solid play strength and does a good job finishing runs. He showed a knack for running behind his pads to create additional push at the point of attack, and routinely fell forward when he knew he was going down. While inexperienced as a ball carrier, I found his vision and patience very promising.

My biggest concerns about Boone as a ball carrier come from the 2019 season finale. Twice Sean Mannion hit his running back in the hands with the ball, and both times it wound up in the hands of defenders. Boone didn’t receive official blame for either turnover, but I’m curious to see what his ball security looks like in the preseason.

What about Melvin Gordon’s potential suspension?

At the moment I assume Gordon, Boone, and Williams are soft locks for the Broncos’ roster. The one wrench that could really crop up here is if Gordon receives any sort of punishment from the NFL. While I don’t expect that to be the case, it’s worth going over the situation.

Gordon was arrested for driving under the influence four days before the Broncos’ game against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. Despite being caught on video telling the police he’d been drinking, he didn’t take a breathalyzer test. He pleaded not guilty to the DUI in January and the case was dismissed in March. Gordon pleaded to a lesser charge of excessive speeding and reckless driving and the Denver District Attorney’s office dismissed the DUI charges after Gordon’s legal team raised evidentiary concerns.

TMZ Sports reported that as part of his plea, Gordon had to conduct 12 hours of community service and pay $478.50 in fines.

The NFL has previously suspended players who had been charged with reckless driving, including former New York Giants kicker Aldrick Rojas last season, but in that incident Rojas had also been charged with leaving the scene of an accident and driving without a valid license. It is possible Gordon admitting to drinking could potentially create problems for him, but I do not expect it given how the rest of the case worked out.

If Gordon does receive any discipline from the league, 9News’ Mike Klis has made it clear the Broncos could and probably would void the guarantees in his contract.

If Gordon doesn’t receive discipline from the league, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t land on the Broncos’ final roster. He’s in the second year of his contract and it’d cost $6,500,000 to cut him and $2,000,000 to trade him, but more than that he’s a good running back that fits the Shurmur offense, who is also proven as a pass protector and outlet receiver.

It’s worth noting that Gordon has only played a full 16+ game season once in his career. Even if you overlook last year’s strep throat and the 2019 contract dispute, Gordon’s had a number of lower body ailments.

The big concern I have about Gordon going forward is if we’ve already seen his best football. He finished 5th in yards after contact in 2018 and broke tackles on a higher percentage of his carries than all but 3 other players. In 2019 he ranked 14th. He finished his first season with the Broncos 24th behind guys like Austin Ekeler, Wayne Gallman, and Brian Hill.

What about RB4?

If Gordon, Williams, and Boone are safely a part of the Broncos’ plans, the next question becomes this: will they carry a 4th running back?

Four running backs made the initial roster last year: Gordon, Lindsay, Royce Freeman, and LeVante Bellamy, but Shurmur only took three ball carriers out of camp in 2018 and 2019. Technically the New York Giants had four backs, but one spot was for a fullback each year. This could bode well for Adam Prentice and/or Andrew Beck, but poorly for Royce Freeman, LeVante Bellamy, and Damarea Crockett.

I personally believe Andrew Beck is kept and serves as the 4th TE as well as the fullback, which would potentially open a spot for the 4th RB. It may also mean the Broncos use the spot to carry an extra offensive lineman, wide receiver, defensive back, etc. It’s hard to say with much certainty when the Broncos could elect to keep an extra ball carrier on the practice squad. It may ultimately depend on the competition, so I thought it made sense to look at the contenders.

Royce Freeman

A 2018 3rd round pick, he has the size and passing down prowess Shurmur likes in his backs. Freeman brings good hands, solid route running, and the play strength to serve as a capable blocker.

What hurts Freeman is a lack of burst and adequate vision. Despite the injuries to Lindsay and Gordon missing time to strep throat, Freeman only touched the ball 47 times last year and clearly became an afterthought. He had almost 159 ST snaps last season and only 193 offensive ones.

At the moment, it sure looks like Freeman is an afterthought to the coaching staff barring a big preseason. Keep in mind if Paton and the Broncos cut Freeman, they’d clear $970,000 in cap space.

LaVante Bellamy

Freeman may have the draft pedigree and prototypical size Pat Shurmur looks for in a running back, but my understanding is the coaching staff is higher on Bellamy. He was the Broncos’ highest-paid UDFA after the 2020 draft, receiving a $25,000 signing bonus and $35,000 in guaranteed money.

Bellamy played in five games during the 2020 season. He was activated for week two after Lindsay’s injury and played until he landed on IR after the Jets game due to a knee injury. The Broncos brought him back off IR following the Miami game in November.

He logged 9 offensive snaps across the last two games and touched the ball five times for 16 yards, with a long rush of eight yards. That isn’t a lot, but keep in mind that a fourth string running back on the 2021 Broncos probably isn’t touching the ball much barring a complete disaster. Special teams is going to be a huge part of the competition and in every game Bellamy was active, he played at least 47% of the ST snaps.

With such a limited offensive role last year, there isn’t a whole lot to glean from his NFL film so far. We’re still waiting to see if Bellamy can outgrow his college scouting reports:

Undersized runner with productive profile and extensive experience in stretch and inside zone from offset shotgun positioning. Bellamy handles the inside/outside nature of the Broncos’ rushing attack, but he’s more comfortable and effective operating in space as an elusive slasher. He has great top-end speed that could really benefit an offense if he operates with better decisiveness and early, one-cut burst. Bellamy should compete for work as a RB3 with change-of-pace speed, but he needs to prove he can improve as a pass-catching option at the next level.

During Bellamy’s years at Western, he’s had a ton of experience running inside zone concepts out of the gun, which should help him in the Shurmur offense. He finished his collegiate career with 617 carries for 3,720 yards and 35 career rushing touchdowns, averaging 6 yards per carry. He also added 57 receptions for 370 yards and 1 touchdown,

Damarea Crockett

The “other guy” in the Broncos’ RB room right now. Crockett entered the NFL as an undrafted FA out of Missouri in 2019. After stints with the Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, and Green Bay Packers, Crockett joined the Broncos’ practice squad last October and signed a futures contract in January.

Crockett’s in a weird spot because he’s two years removed from the last college tape, we didn’t get to watch him in the preseason last year because it was cancelled, and he has yet to log an NFL touch. We’re still waiting to see if Crockett can outperform his college scouting reports: below average vision, shaky hands and pass blocking. Needs to improve at stringing moves together.

In case you didn’t realize, Crockett was a college teammate of Drew Lock’s at Missouri. As a freshman, he set a school rushing record with 1062 yards and 10 TDs, but missed most of his sophomore year to a shoulder injury and lost snaps because he was a part of a rotation in 2018.

He declared for the NFL after his junior season. He rushed for 709 yards and seven touchdowns on 147 carries, but missed the last two games of the season to toe and ankle injuries. He finished his collegiate career with 2389 total yards, and 21 TDs