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Broncos running back corps is complicated for fantasy GMs

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The Broncos are going to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league this season. Their new system under offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello is going to be quite familiar to Broncos fans as the DNA of the scheme comes from Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak.

That means the Broncos are going to run early and often.

It sounds like great news for Fantasy GMs looking for running back help on their fantasy teams. However, that’s not really the case because of the jam-packed backfield featuring two starting-caliber backs. The Broncos are deep and talented at the position, and they are unlikely to have one lead back. Instead, there should be a running-back-by-committee in place – and that creates a lot of headaches from a fantasy football lens.

So, with all this talent, why does this backfield create complications for Fantasy GMs in 2019? Let’s take a look.

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Original Plan Redux

The Broncos selected Royce Freeman in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the idea that he was going to be the lead back. Instead, Freeman got banged up as a rookie and undrafted free agent rookie Phillip Lindsay emerged as the starter.

This year, the Broncos may be trying to go back to their original plan.

Freeman is built more like a workhorse back and the team implemented a wide-zone running scheme that fits his skill set to a tee. He could be the lead ball carrier for the Broncos in 2019 as they try and reduce the wear-and-tear on Lindsay.

The most-explosive playmaker in the backfield is Lindsay, but they might want to use him in space more and save some of the heavy lifting (or tougher, inside carries) for Freeman. Lindsay should be the starter and should get more touches (rushes, receptions) than Freeman, but this is most definitely a RBBC and that can be problematic for Fantasy GMs.

What could be worse than a RBBC from a fantasy perspective is the dreaded “hot hand” approach that some teams – maybe the Broncos this year – implement in their backfield. That means there will be a split of touches, but the team will go with whichever running back is hottest based on the results in game. There is no way to effectively predict which back is a better play on a week-to-week basis when a team goes with that approach.

Hopefully, we get some clarity with the Broncos backfield early in the regular season, but there is going to be a chance to the formula when one of their new additions gets back from his injury.

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Riddick Riddle

The backfield was already complicated with Freeman and Lindsay at the start of training camp. Things got even more perplexing when the team added free-agent running back Theo Riddick.

While Lindsay could have been used much more as a receiver this season, that’s no longer going to be the case with Riddick on the roster. Riddick is a seasoned veteran who emerged as a reliable pass-catching back with the Lions over the last six years. While Lindsay is a good receiving option, Riddick is a great receiving option who can line up all over the field.

Riddick has “RB” next to his name on the roster, but he’s really more of a slot receiver. Not only can Riddick catch passes out of the backfield, he’s good enough of a route runner to line up in the slot or out wide like a receiver and he can get open with ease and regularity.

The Broncos will be without Riddick at the start of the regular season due to a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason game against the Seahawks. The injury could keep him out from a couple of weeks to perhaps the entire first month of the season. When he returns, Riddick shouldn’t take too long to get up to speed – again – in this offense.

The distribution of touches in the backfield will be changed when Riddick returns from his injury, and that needs to be accounted for when drafting guys like Lindsay or Freeman.


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Fullbacks with Juice

In addition to the work their three-headed backfield is going to get, we might see some work for fullback Andy Janovich on offense. The fullback is an important part of this offense, not just as a lead blocker, but as a receiving option.

It’s all about making a defense declare what you want as an offensive coordinator. If a fullback is on the field, the offense is showing a “heavy” look and a defense might be lulled into using a base defense. If that’s the case and you have a fullback capable of being a quality receiver, the offense can take advantage of the mismatch. That’s what Scangarello saw in person as a coach with the 49ers last year.

The 49ers use fullback Kyle Juszczyk mainly as a receiving weapon. In 2018, Juszczyk caught 30 passes for 324 yards and one touchdown. He played 662 snaps last year for the 49ers. By comparison, Janovich only played 239 snaps for the Broncos offense in 2018.

Catching 30 passes may not seem like a lot, but Janovich only has 17 catches in three seasons with the Broncos. An increase in catches for Janovich, even if he only catches 20 passes in 2019, is going to take away from production that Freeman, Lindsay or Riddick have. It’s not a big chunk, but the role for Janovich is something worth taking into account.

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Summary

It all comes down to value when drafting your fantasy football team. That leaves one player above all others in the Broncos backfield that could bring the largest return on investment.

Phillip Lindsay has a current average draft position of RB24 (4.12) in 12-team PPR leagues. That means he is expected to perform like a RB2 or flex play and you can get him near the end of the fourth round. This is an average and obviously not the spot you’ll have to pick Lindsay if you live in Denver or play with a bunch of Broncos fans. That means you’ll have to spend as high as a first-round pick on Lindsay. That investment is too high for the return expected this year with all things considered in the Broncos backfield.

Freeman has a current ADP much lower at RB39 (8.08) in 12-team PPR leagues. That puts him around the RB4 level and near the end of the eighth round. That is a much better spot for value, especially if Freeman can stay healthy and play up to his potential this year. You could get him as a fourth running back for your fantasy team this year, but the potential is there for him to put up low-end RB2 or at least solid flex numbers this season.

The value in the Broncos backfield is Freeman, and he’s the one player least likely to be impacted by the return or Riddick. However, Lindsay is too talented to use as a change-of-pace back and that means on a week-to-week basis this Broncos backfield could have a different top performer. You might be a big Broncos fan but in your fantasy league this backfield – as incredibly talented as it is – should make you proceed with caution.

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