The Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the running back position.
Starter 1A: Phillip Lindsay
The Broncos found a true gem in 2018 undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay. Nobody saw Lindsay’s high level of production coming – not even the Broncos. If the 2018 NFL Draft was done over, Lindsay would be a first-round pick. Instead, every team in the NFL passed on him for seven rounds – including the Broncos – and now he makes everyone pay for their mistake.
I watched Lindsay up close during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game in January 2018. Many of the NFL scouts I talk to at that time said the CU star was a lot like Patriots running back James White, and that comparison made a lot of sense to me. White was a talented runner in college at Wisconsin (where he once backed up former Broncos back Montee Ball), but he really stood out in space as a receiver.
I thought Lindsay would get drafted in the mid-to-late rounds (he was my No. 10 running back last year), but make plays as a change-of-pace or satellite back. Lindsay performed well at the Shrine Game, but that wasn’t enough to get him invited to the 2018 Scouting Combine – and that’s likely the biggest reason why he went undrafted.
It didn’t take long in training camp during Lindsay’s rookie season to show that he belonged. Lindsay began last year as a backup, but fought his way to the top of the depth chart.
The biggest takeaway from watching Lindsay run is how much heart he runs with. He refuses to go down quietly and he usually jumps up after the biggest hit to show that nothing will keep him down. He’s not reckless as a runner, but instead he plays with little regard for his personal safety (more on that later). Lindsay is not afraid of anything or anyone with the ball in his hands. The heart he runs with helps him attack a defense inside where most small running backs shy away from.
He reminds me so much of former Buccaneers and Falcons running back Warrick Dunn. Like Dunn, Lindsay is adept at running between the tackles. He does a good job of avoiding “trash” between the tackles and keeps his knees high to correctly step through small rushing lanes.
Lindsay is what I call an “inside/out” runner, meaning he will attack inside and only bounce to the outside once he’s at or near the second level of the defense. Most small running backs with speed tend to take things to the “corner store” as soon as they get the handoff. Lindsay will maintain his discipline as a runner inside and is not afraid to take what’s there rather than try to do too much, bounce things outside and potentially lose yardage.
Lindsay became the first offensive player in the NFL history to go from undrafted to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. That feat was done largely because of his playmaking ability but also because Lindsay went over 1,000 yards rushing in 2018.
This year, Lindsay’s role could change and it has little to do with him or his skill set or the worry that he’s going to be injury prone in the NFL due to his size. Lindsay ended his rookie season with a wrist injury in Week 16 and it was a gruesome hit. He had surgery in late December and has been on the road to recovery ever since.
Lindsay has been very limited during minicamp and OTAs this offseason. He was not allowed to take a handoff or catch a pass during practice as the team doesn’t want there to be any setbacks to his recovery. When training camp starts in mid-July, Lindsay should be able to participate fully. The Broncos have been very careful with him this offseason, so don’t expect to see much from him during the first couple of preseason games this year. The Broncos play five preseason games since they’re playing in the Hall of Fame Game, so they don’t need Lindsay out there much in the exhibition season.
The role for Lindsay could be changing this year, and perhaps that’s for the best. He only caught 35 passes in 2018 for 241 receiving yards. In 2019, Lindsay may approach 50 catches and closer to 400 or 500 yards receiving.
Using him more as a receiver out of the backfield gets him in open space where he’s not going to take the beating he gets when running inside. Lindsay could still have 1,000 yards rushing this season, but it’s more important to get him the right amount of all-purpose yards.
That means the Broncos should monitor or manage Lindsay’s touches properly. He’s not a pile-pusher as a runner even though he will try to push inside if he has to. Lindsay is best utilized in space, and he should be used more as a receiver out of the backfield. Watching the coaches’ tape in 2018, it was clear that former quarterback Case Keenum simply couldn’t see Lindsay on certain plays. That’s not going to be the case with the much taller (and much better) Joe Flacco. Lindsay should still get around 15 touches per game, but it may not rise much over that.
Starter 1B: Royce Freeman
We should see the backfield look different in 2019, and that’s good news for Royce Freeman. Last year as a rookie, Freeman began the season as the starter for the Broncos – and he looked to be a fine starting option. A third-round pick out of Oregon in the 2018 NFL Draft, Freeman was my No. 9 ranked running back mainly because of his size/power combination.
Freeman has the build of a bell-cow back at 230 pounds. His size and power is something defenses don’t want to deal with – especially late in games. Freeman is the type of runner who gets stronger as the game goes on the defense gets sick of tackling him. He’s what scouts call a “rhythm runner,” meaning he needs to get a good amount of carries to get a good feel for the game.
He didn’t really get a chance to get into that rhythm last year. While he looked good at times as a runner, Freeman suffered a high-ankle sprain that essentially knocked him out of the starting lineup. Freeman had to miss time and when he did return, he did not look the same because of that injury.
In addition to his injury, Freeman did not look like a good fit for the rushing attack implemented by former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He certainly didn’t look good running behind fullback Andy Janovich. The timing seemed to be off for Freeman and his footwork suffered, thus his production also suffered.
The Broncos have taken care of that with the wide-zone system that’s going to be implemented by new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Already this offseason, Freeman has looked much more comfortable running the ball. His timing seems better, he sets up blocks properly and does not run into the back of his blockers like he did at times last year.
Freeman is very comfortable with the quick decisions a back has to make in a zone-blocking system. He mostly lives between the tackles, but Freeman does have the speed and quickness to cut back against the grain and run opposite play side. That skill has to keep defenders on their toes because if they lose discipline on the edge, Freeman can make them play. The best play of minicamp and OTAs came on a run by Freeman where he bent it back against the grain and ran almost 40 yards for a touchdown untouched.
To see more of Freeman only makes sense. If he stays healthy, then Freeman could be the lead rusher for the Broncos in 2019. Now, Lindsay should have more all-purpose yards, but Freeman may have more yards on the ground.
The Broncos need to set up their play-action passing game, so they will be going to the ground early and often.
That means the offensive line has to play better. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak should have an immediate impact on the guys up front, and that’s good news for the Broncos starting duo of Lindsay and Freeman.
Reserves: Devontae Booker, Khalfani Muhammad, Devontae Jackson
The backfield lacks experience in the reserve ranks, outside of Devontae Booker, but there is some explosive playmaking ability here. It’s an interesting group based on the size and skill set of each back, and it feels like the Broncos could add another body here at some point during camp.
Booker is the first back to focus on from this group. A fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Booker was supposed to take over in the backfield for C.J. Anderson, but that never materialized and he’s generally been a career disappointment after three seasons. Injuries and inconsistencies have plagued his game from day one, although 2018 was the first season he played a full 16-game season.
He did play a full season last year, but he barely touched the ball. Booker had more receptions (38) than rushes (34) in 2018. At this point in his career, the role he’s best suited for is as a receiver out of the backfield. There are many faults to Booker’s game, but one of his strengths is his hands. He is an excellent receiving back and has natural hands to pluck the ball out of the air. In fact, he’s arguably the best receiving back on the roster. Keeping him involved as a receiving back makes sense because (as we saw last year) it helps keep Booker healthy.
Booker’s experience should keep him on the 53-man roster. If injuries hit in front of him on the depth chart, Booker does have starting experience to lean on. He’s not a great runner and seems to almost run blind when attacking inside between the tackles.
I don’t think the wide-zone system fits Booker well. He is a straight-line runner who needs a lane and hole to run through. In the wide-zone system, a back can bend-bang-or bounce – meaning he has three options to go to depending on how the defense is responding up front. I don’t think Booker works well having to make those decisions in a moment’s notice. He should make the team, but if one of these other backs behind him impress during the preseason then perhaps the team moves on.
Khalfani Muhammad was a seventh-round pick for the Tennessee Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft. Coming out of Cal, Muhammad was known for his speed and big-play ability. He was an accomplished track star in high school, and that skill set carried over to his college career. Muhammad ran a blazing 4.38 second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and certainly wowed as a return man in college, as well.
Muhammad is a tough runner for a man his size, so (like Lindsay) he doesn’t shy away from running inside. He’s not a big guy, measuring in at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, so don’t expect him to be a pile-pusher at the pro level. But he does know how to “get skinny” and find small creases between the tackles.
The Broncos may only keep three running backs on the final roster, so Muhammad may be the odd man out. However, if he does stand out on special teams as a return man then perhaps that would sway the Broncos into keeping him.
Undrafted rookie Devontae Jackson was one of my favorite late-round graded players to watch. The West Georgia back is small (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), but he runs with a lot of heart. He’s slippery in the open field and has multiple moves to get by defenders. Jackson is electric with the ball in his hands, and he was a touchdown hog in college (31 rushing touchdowns).
Jackson may be more quick than fast, but his feet are great and that helps him make moves at full speed. He doesn’t need to gather himself before making a cut or juke move. Jackson also has a spin move that he uses to trick defenders and get away from their grasp. He’s the last back on the roster and is a long-shot to make the team. However, a spot on the practice squad could be reserved for him.
Jackson has been a standout player in minicamp and OTAs in terms of his moves, receiving ability and quickness. For those paying attention, Jackson has been impressing as a third-team back.
The Broncos are going to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league this year. That’s why they essentially have two starting running backs in Lindsay and Freeman.
We could see Lindsay’s role change just a bit this year to make way for Freeman and his powerful running style. That doesn’t mean Lindsay will take a backseat, but instead it means that Lindsay could be used more in space and certainly get more passes thrown his way.
Freeman is built for the grind. He could be the Broncos bell-cow running back if called upon, and there might be weeks where he gets more carries than Lindsay. This team is going to split the workload in the backfield, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing for both backs as they’ll have a better chance to stay healthy and perform at a higher level because neither one is going to get worn down from too much work.
The reserve backs are rather non-descript, but we’ll see if a pecking order can be established quickly in training camp and the preseason. The Broncos might only keep three backs on the roster, but I wouldn’t say Booker is a stone-cold lock to make the team.
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