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Broncos 2020 Free Agency Preview: Running Backs

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

When the NFL free agency kicks off on March 18, the Broncos figure to be very active. For one, they have a lot of holes to fill, so there are plenty of reasons for John Elway to go shopping. But in addition, Denver’s general manager will have a lot of money to spend.

Currently, the Broncos are $58 million under the 2020 salary cap, but that number could grow to as high as $76 million once Ron Leary and Joe Flacco come off the books as expected. And if Elway really wants to get crazy, he can free up nearly $9 million in additional cap space by parting ways with Todd Davis and Jeff Heuerman.

How should the Broncos put all of those dollars to use? In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the best players projected to be on the open market, as well as analysis of who would be a realistic fit in Denver.

It continues today with a position that keeps evolving in the NFL – running back. The Broncos already have Phillip Lindsay, who has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years in the league. But behind the local hero, the depth chart is thin. Denver definitely needs to add some more ballcarriers to the roster.

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Top Five Available

1. Derrick Henry – The 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back certainly has good timing. This season, Henry led the NFL in rushing attempts (303), rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16). Then, he followed up that regular-season performance with a dominant showing in the playoffs, helping the Titans beat the Patriots and Ravens on the road. Not a bad way to head into free agency. Henry will be a hot commodity, as he’s coming off the best season of his four-year career. But was it an aberration? That’s the question.

2. Melvin Gordon – Gordon sat out all of training camp, the preseason and the start of the regular season last year in a contract dispute, which derailed his campaign. As a result, he put up the worst numbers of his career, rushing for just 612 yards. He did score eight touchdowns, however, showing the nose for the end zone that has been a part of his game during his five years with the Chargers. Gordon is a versatile back, capable of rushing for 1,000 yards and hauling in 500 yards worth of passes. That makes him attractive in today’s NFL.

3. Austin Ekeler* – With Melving Gordon holding out, that gave Ekeler a chance to become the feature back for the Chargers early in the season. The little-known player out of Western State in Colorado seized the opportunity, becoming a big part of the Chargers offense all season. While not a prototypical runner, Ekeler did rack up 557 yards on the ground. But in the passing game was where he really shined, catching 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a perfect third-down running back. Ekeler is a restricted free agent, but the Chargers might not match an offer, depending on what they do with Gordon.

4. Kareem Hunt* – As a rookie with the Chiefs in 2017, Hunt was the NFL’s leading rusher, posting a 1,327-yard campaign. The following year, he was on his way to a similar performance before being derailed by off-the-field issues that got him suspended by the NFL and released by Kansas City. Last season, he got back into the league with the Browns by was used sparingly. Thus, teams will be taking the gamble on whether he can find his rookie form on the field and avoid more trouble off of it. Hunt is a restricted free agent, but with Nick Chubb as the feature back in Cleveland, the Browns likely wouldn’t match a big offer.

5. Kenyan Drake – For the first three-and-a-half years of his career, Drake was a part-time player in Miami. He posted decent numbers and showed some explosiveness, but never became the feature back with the Dolphins. After being traded to Arizona midway through last season, Drake finally got that chance. Starting eight games with the Cardinals, he rushed for 643 yards and eight touchdowns, while also hauling in 28 receptions. Now, the question is whether or not that can translate to a full season and beyond.

* Restricted free agent

NOTES:

Damien Williams – One of the heroes from Super Bowl LIV would be an intriguing option on the open market, but the Chiefs have a team option on their starting running back and figure to bring him back for 2020.

Adrian Peterson – The veteran running back turns 35 in March, but he contends that he stills wants to play. After rushing for 898 yards last year in Washington, look for the Redskins to pick up his team option, as well.

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Realistic Options for the Broncos

1. Jordan Howard – During the first three seasons of his career, Howard was a very productive back. In Chicago, he rushed for 1,313, 1,122 and 935 yards, while scoring 24 touchdowns on the ground. But after departing for Philadelphia last season, Howard couldn’t get back on track. He only appeared in 10 games, started just four and rushed for only 525 yards. A team that wants to use him in the manner the Bears did, making him a featured part of the offense, could rekindle his career.

2. Lamar Miller – Miller was going to be the No. 1 option in Houston last season. Coming off of a Pro Bowl campaign in 2019, a third 1,000-yard season was on the mind of the veteran running back. A knee injury in the preseason derailed those plans, however, forcing Miller to miss the entire season. Now, he’ll have to prove that he’s healthy and still able to produce at the level that racked up 5,864 career yards during his first seven seasons. He’ll turn 29 in April, which could also decrease his asking price.

3. Theo Riddick – The Broncos like Riddick enough last year that they signed him to a one-year contract during training camp. Unfortunately, he was injured in a preseason game at Seattle and never saw the field again for Denver. That said, the pass-catching skills that were intriguing last year are still there, as Riddick has been more of a receiver in his career than a runner. That could make him the perfect complement to Lindsay, who has struggled catching passes out of the backfield.

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