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Has Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay already peaked?

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

I brought this up at least a couple of months ago on the 104.3 The Fan airwaves. And it deserves further examination now.

Has Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay peaked?

I want to be very clear that I believe in Lindsay, always have, as he was No. 10 ranked running back in the 2018 NFL Draft. That may sound low right now, given what he did as a rookie in 2018; but at the time, it was the highest of any draft analyst out there.

I watched Lindsay closely during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game in January 2018 and talked to NFL scouts who believed he could be a player like Patriots running back James White at the pro level. I thought Lindsay could be a “satellite” back and be utilized in space as a runner or receiving weapon.

I knew when the Broncos picked up Lindsay last year as an undrafted free agent that they were getting a quality player, but nobody could predict the amazing production he had as a rookie.

Have we seen the best from Lindsay in the pros after just one year? Let’s take a look.

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Freeman Effect

One of the main reasons we may have seen the most out of Lindsay is the fact that fellow second-year running back Royce Freeman should be able to do more this season. Freeman began the 2018 season as the Broncos starter, but a high-ankle sprain allowed the door to be opened for Lindsay to take over.

He returned later in the year, but Freeman didn’t look quite the same as he did before the injury. High-ankle sprains are known to linger and it certainly seemed that way with Freeman in 2018. He did finish his rookie season with 521 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns, 14 catches and 72 yards receiving.

Freeman has the size to be a bell-cow runner for the Broncos; that’s a size advantage that Lindsay simply cannot overcome. The size, and his more natural fit in a wide-zone scheme, means Freeman is likely to get plenty of opportunities this upcoming season.

It’s not a bad thing for the Broncos to use Freeman as much as possible along with Lindsay. The Broncos are going to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, and their rushing attack is going to set up their play-action passing game.

The Broncos could even use a “hot hand” approach when it comes to running the ball. If Lindsay is hot, then he stays in the game as the primary runner. If Freeman is having more success, then perhaps the team would stay with him for that week and use Lindsay as more of a satellite or change-of-pace back.

Either way, the Broncos have options when it comes to moving the ball on the ground.

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Managing His Touches

The Broncos need to make sure to manage Lindsay’s touches in 2019 to insure they don’t overuse such a talented player. Lindsay had 192 carries in 2018, and that total might be pushing the line.

There would be less of a concern about Lindsay if he was at full strength right now. But a wrist injury ended his rookie season at 15 games.

He didn’t play in Week 17 and went under the knife to repair the wrist. At the time of the injury, it was reported as torn ligaments around the scaphoid bone and it was expected to be a four- to six-month injury. That was in late December, so at the earliest we’d see Lindsay was in June or July.

We’re not seeing Lindsay in late May and I don’t think we’ll see him until some point in training camp. The Broncos will start their training camp a bit earlier this year due to playing in the Hall of Fame Game. That means mid-July is the starting point for training camp and Lindsay may be eased into action at that time.

Lindsay is a very intent runner and he does not shy away from contact. I don’t think he should change his style, but Lindsay does need to protect himself better. Perhaps with management of his touches, the Broncos can keep Lindsay fresh and not grind him down as the season goes on. When looking at Lindsay’s size and not wanting to get him banged up again, perhaps the Broncos should be looking to give him around 150 to 200 carries this season.

As much as I believe they could manage his carries, I do want Lindsay used more as a receiver – both out of the backfield and from the slot. He was targeted 47 times in 2018, catching 35 passes and those numbers could be doubled this year.

I want Lindsay in space where he can do the most damage. Utilizing him more as a receiver just makes sense because he’s too fast for safeties or linebackers to cover him. Lindsay is a playmaker and getting him 175 carried, plus 50 or so catches, sounds like a better plan to me. We’ll see if the Broncos can make that happen in 2019.

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Improvements Up Front?

The Broncos need to get better up front. Their offensive line is a work in progress and one that saw many changes last year due to injury.

Pro Football Focus recently highlighted one of the best advanced stats for Lindsay from 2018.

His yards per carry before contact was best in the league last year. The average for a running back in this category was 2.50 yards before contact. That’s a great number, but a deeper look shows where the offensive line could get better.

Lindsay ranked No. 25 in rushing yards before contact with 304 such yards. He had a great average before contact, but not enough holes were opened up for the young runner. Lindsay clearly can do quite a bit when he’s got a hole and the Broncos offensive line needs to do a better job of breaking open those rushing lanes.

This wide-zone scheme the Broncos should have under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello should help greatly. Lindsay is an urgent runner, but he does so with patience. Let me explain; he will patiently wait for his hole to open then have great urgency to get to and through the hole when it’s there.

Dalton Risner should help Lindsay (and Freeman), too. There was no player closer to Quenton Nelson than Risner in this year’s draft. Just like Nelson made a big impact for the Colts offense (and their rushing attack), I’m expecting Risner’s attitude to be infectious to his teammates. More aggressiveness means the Broncos rushing attack is going to be one to be feared – not only because Lindsay is a big-play weapon but also because guys like Risner want to kick ass on every snap.

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Apt Comparison

I was the first one to suggest that Lindsay could be the next Warrick Dunn. Both Dunn and Lindsay are smaller backs who play with a lot of passion. One of the reasons I was so high on Lindsay coming out of Colorado was the fact that he consistently proved doubters wrong. I didn’t know how much he would produce as a rookie, but I did believe he would make the team and make an impact.

Dunn, a first-round pick of the Buccaneers in the 1997 NFL Draft, played with a ton of heart, as well.

As a rookie, Dunn won Offensive Rookie of the Year by rushing for 978 yards, scoring four rushing touchdowns, catching 39 passes for 462 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. These numbers are similar to the 1,037 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns, 35 catches for 241 yards and one receiving touchdown Lindsay put up as a rookie with the Broncos in 2018.

Dunn broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark five times as a pro. However, he had over 1,000 all-purpose yards (rushing/receiving) a whopping 11 times. With Lindsay’s skill set and size, I think it’s best we look at his total yardage rather than just focus on the rushing part of his game. Lindsay is much more than just a runner; he is a weapon who can hurt a defense anytime he touches the ball.

As aforementioned, Lindsay had 192 carries as a rookie and didn’t make it through a full season. Dunn, during his 12-year pro career, had over 192 carries nine times. Dunn played a full season seven times in 12 years and at least 15 games 10 times during that period. Dunn was consistent in his production and he did that with a larger workload for a 180-pound running back.

If Lindsay can match that consistent production, then he’s going to have a fine career in the NFL.

Some out there think Lindsay plays like former Broncos running back Tatum Bell. Like Lindsay, Bell wasn’t a large back but made plenty of big plays because of his speed and explosiveness.

A second-round pick of the Broncos in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bell played only five seasons in the NFL – never playing a full 16-game season. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards once (2006) in his career and had 1,000-plus all-purpose yards in two seasons (2005, 2006).

He did make a good 1-2 punch with Mike Anderson in 2005, when Bell had 921 rushing yards and Anderson had 1,014 yards. By the way, that duo had a whopping 19 rushing touchdowns that season.

Bell was listed at 213 pounds, so that’s quite a bit bigger than Lindsay. But most think of Bell as a smaller back because he wasn’t a pile pusher and not a back to look to in short-yardage situations.

I think the Bell comparison for Lindsay is off the mark. Bell was fast, but it took too long for him to change direction. Lindsay can take one step and burst the other way with the rock, while Bell would take a few steps just to slow down so he could change direction.

Bell was a decent player but not as dangerous as Lindsay.

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Summary

Lindsay, if healthy for a full season, can easily duplicate what he did last year for the Broncos. But can he do more?

If Freeman has a larger role for the team in 2019, then it could be difficult for Lindsay to build upon 2018. There’s only so many touches to go around. Even though the Broncos want to run the ball early and often, splitting time at the running back position means Lindsay just may touch the ball fewer times in 2019.

Managing his snaps may not be a bad thing. In fact, one could easily make the argument that Lindsay with fewer touches could be even more effective because he’d be less worn down.

An improved offensive line and better rushing system should help Lindsay thrive. The Broncos are going to be run-heavy this year and that should mean better holes and opportunities for Lindsay.

Lindsay didn’t make it through his rookie year unscathed and needs to do so in 2019 if he wants to outperform the bar he set for himself as a rookie. He plays tough and with little regard for his personal safety. Seeing Lindsay avoid big hits, both given and received, could help him stay healthy for a full 16-game season.

He is so much like Dunn to me and not as much like Bell in my opinion. If that truly is the case, then Lindsay will continue to progress in terms of production as a runner and receiver. I think his skill set is like Dunn but his Lindsay/Freeman might have similar production to what Bell/Anderson had in 2005.

Has Phillip Lindsay peaked? Only time will tell, but one thing is true: It’s not wise to bet against the young man.