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Denver Broncos roster review: The Running Backs

After kicking things off with the quarterbacks, we will follow up our positional roster reviews by discussing their stable of running backs.

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos were active in free agency and aggressive during the 2023 NFL Draft. After a short rookie training camp, the franchise made various moves to trim down to the 90 allowed players for their roster.

The addition of Ben Powers and Mike McGlinchey to Denver’s offensive line should help pave the way for the Broncos’ stable of running backs. They also just brought back Cam Fleming on a one-year deal to be their swing tackle in the event McGlinchey or Garett Bolles miss time with injury.

While Sean Payton is known for prolific passing offenses, it appears the Broncos will try and make running the ball a focal point of their offense to alleviate pressure of off Russell Wilson. I don’t mind that idea, but when glossing over their crop of backs at the position I do have some concerns. With that said, let’s take a look at the group of backs battling for spots on the final 53-man roster.

The Recovering Starter

Javonte Williams

When the Broncos traded up for Javonte Williams in the 2021 NFL Draft, I knew the Broncos were getting a great player who would make an immediate impact as a rookie. He became a fan favorite early on due to his bruising running style and penchant for breaking tackles and obliterating defenders.

In his first season, Williams rushed for 903 yards, 4 touchdowns, and sported a 4.4 yard per carry average. He also showed his value as a receiver out of the backfield by hauling in 43 receptions for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns. Williams’ sophomore season expectations were high, with Pro-Bowl and potential All-Pro aspirations as legitimate milestones. To say he could have become one of the best backs in the league in year two wasn’t an outrageous statement at all.

Unfortunately, that all changed when he suffered a catastrophic injury on the Broncos’ first offensive play of the third quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders in early October last season.

Whether or not Williams will ever return to his prior form and potential remains to be seen. Historically, players with significant knee injuries (beyond an ACL tear) usually fail to hit their stride after recovering from injury. The ambiguity surrounding his injury makes predicting his potential impact this season extremely hard.

Though the Broncos’ big decision makers have been positive about Williams’ time table for return, under no circumstance should they rush him back to the field. I hope they play it safe in order to avoid further re-injury risk, but regardless of when he returns, that will always be something fans will be thinking about.

The Back-Up Plan

Samaje Perine

This year’s free agent class at the running back position sported a good amount of backs with quality production and experience. The Broncos opted to sign Samaje Perine to a two-year deal. A player most fans weren’t even considering for the Broncos when making their free agent signing guesses.

A seasoned veteran, he came into the league in 2017 with the Washington Commanders and amassed 785 all-purpose yards as a rookie. He didn’t do much in 2018 or 2019, and eventually carved himself out a quality role in Cincinnati as their number two back behind Joe Mixon the past three seasons.

Perine’s strength is a downhill inside runner who has averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry the past three seasons. He wasn’t featured much as a pass catcher in the Bengals’ offense, but is also known for being one of the better backs in the league at picking up blitzes in passing situations.

I have my concerns about Perine being a starter with the Broncos, but it appears he is destined for a rather large role until Williams is fully healed up and ready to go. Given Payton’s history of getting numerous players to perform well in his offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Perine embark on his best year of his NFL career as he approaches his seventh season in the league.

Fighting for a Spot: The Bruisers and The Speedsters

Behind Williams and Perine, the Broncos have six other packs vying for a spot on this year’s roster. The first trio I would call the “The Brusiers”, which would be Tony Jones, Jr., Jacques Patrick, Damarea Crockett.

They are bigger backs that do their best work heading north-south and downhill on interior plays. Though I honestly don’t think any of them are exciting candidates or good bets to make the final 53-man roster, but Payton’s familiarity with Jones, Jr. based on his time with the New Orleans Saints could come into play here.

On the flip side, there are three backs with top-notch speed and receiving ability who are looking to earn a role in Payton’s offense. Those three players are Tyler Badie, Tyriek McCallister, and Jaleel McLaughlin.

The Broncos snagged Badie of the Ravens’ practice squad last year and he showed some flash in limited snaps late last season. He is a really good pass catcher who played a lot of snaps for Missouri and was a big-time producer for their team. If I had to bet on any of these three, he would be the guy I think could shine in Payton’s offense. But I’m also bullish on McLaughlin, whose improved every step of his football journey.

Hart’s Position Group Grade: C+

As outlined above, the Broncos’ running back room currently consists of an injured Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine, and a myriad of different running backs with limited or no NFL experience.

With that in mind, I was surprised the team opted to no select one from this year’s crop. I felt securing a rookie back with a late Day 2 or Day 3 pick would have helped alleviate some concerns here. Since they didn’t, it’s safe to assume the franchise brass must believe Williams is far ahead of schedule and should be ready to compete this year.

But if a scenario happens where both Williams and Perine aren’t available, I would be significantly concerned about the Broncos’ rushing attack. We will see how it plays out, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if Denver makes another move down the road to bring in a more established player who can help make an impact on offense.