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Training Camp 2020: Previewing the Broncos running backs

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Is this the season the Broncos get back to their winning ways? Last year, in the first season with Vic Fangio as their head coach, the Broncos finished one game below .500 with a 7-9 record. They did finish the season strong, going 4-1 during the final five games of the regular season. That finish has given fans hope that this team is finally on the right track and can perhaps even make a postseason run – especially with the league expanding the playoffs by one team in each conference.

During the last three years, the Broncos have drafted well, and this roster has talented players on both sides of the ball. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at 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.

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Starter: Melvin Gordon

The Broncos went out in free agency and signed former Chargers running back Melvin Gordon to a contract that made him the sixth-highest paid running back in the league. Even though Phillip Lindsay is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the Broncos were looking to upgrade the position. That’s where Gordon comes in to be the lead back in the Pat Shurmur offense.

A first-round pick of the Chargers in the 2015 NFL Draft, I can easily say they never used Gordon the right way. In college at Wisconsin, Gordon was a big-play back with incredible speed he regularly displayed outside the tackles. Instead of using him that way, the Chargers have spent a lot of time slamming Gordon between the tackles to be a grinder. While he’s had some success in that role, I believe that Shurmur could give us the best version of Gordon we’ve seen in the NFL.

Looking back through Shurmur’s history, he regularly uses only one running back as the bell-cow back while the second-string running back barely touches the ball. That means Gordon could be in for a workload where he could get more than 300 touches in 2020. So, how does Lindsay fit in? That’s a question that will have to be answered in training camp.

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Reserves: Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, LeVante Bellamy, Jeremy Cox

Lindsay is better than most second-string backs in the league. In fact, it’s better just to say the Broncos have two No. 1 running backs on the roster. Only the Browns with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt can make such a claim. The Broncos have a problem in the backfield – a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. There is only one football and they have two good backs who will need touches.

Lindsay is a smaller back who can make his living between the tackles. He is tough and has zero hesitation when running inside the tackles. Lindsay will “get skinny” and push as much as he can to gain yards inside, but if he sees a lane to the outside at the second level, then he’s got the burst to get there quickly. Lindsay has good burst and can rip off big plays as a runner, although field-flipping plays (like 80-yard runs) are not on his resume.

As a runner, there are no issues with Lindsay. He’s not a pile-pusher, but he could make plays inside on non-short yardage situations. It’s the passing game where Lindsay needs to shine under Shurmur.

Lindsay had the second-highest drop rate in the league last year, dropping around 10 percent of the passes thrown his way. Only Raiders wide receiver Tyrell Williams had a worse drop rate in 2019. In addition to struggling as a receiver, Lindsay did not convert many of his runs on third down and he hasn’t been much of a force in the red zone.

He also needs to stay healthy as he has had two wrist surgeries each of the last two offseasons. His size leads to concerns about pass-protection, as well. The odds seem to be stacked against Lindsay to be the starter this year, but that’s something he’s used to. We’ll see what kind of a fight Lindsay can put up for the No. 1 spot in training camp.

Royce Freeman’s career was supposed to be different. He was set to be the team’s primary back in each of the last two seasons, but he has been outperformed by Lindsay. A third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft coming out of Oregon, Freeman has strength and good burst as a runner. In addition to being a natural and instinctive runner, Freeman is a good receiver out of the backfield. He seems to have lost confidence as a runner, but Freeman has looked good in the pros as a receiving back. Freeman is clearly the No. 3 running back for the Broncos and won’t see the field much unless injuries strike the players on the depth chart in front of him.

LeVante Bellamy is built a lot like Lindsay because he’s a smaller back who can thrive between the tackles. The Broncos picked him up as an undrafted free agent in 2020 coming out of Western Michigan. Bellamy is a good “inside/out” runner where he begins the run inside, then can quickly dash to the outside at the linebacker level to gash defenses. Bellamy has a nose for the end zone and fights hard to score with the rock in his hand. He is a good receiver out of the backfield, catching passes naturally with his arms extended away from his body. Bellamy received $35,000 in guarantees, which shows that the Broncos like him. He could make the 53-man roster as a reserve runner. Bellamy at least seems destined to make the team’s practice squad in 2020.

Jeremy Cox was picked up by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion in 2019. He was with the Chargers all offseason last year but did not make the 53-man roster and was waived at the end of the preseason. Cox then waited patiently out of the league until the Broncos signed him to a futures contract for 2020. He is a big back, weighing 225 pounds, but he has explosive traits (39-inch vertical leap) and can consistently catch passes out of the backfield. It will be tough for him to make the final roster with the Broncos this year, but he could be bound for the practice squad if he impresses in training camp.

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Summary

The identity of the Broncos in 2020 is going to be their offense. They’ve made a ton of improvements on that side of the ball, and the team should lean on the ground game more than Shurmur’s history suggests. They have a young quarterback, they have two really good backs and should plan to keep the ball secure with the rushing attack. Some of that rushing game may be backs used as receivers out of the backfield, supplementing carries for short passes to Gordon and Lindsay.

Gordon is a better pass-catcher than Lindsay. He’s better in the red zone. And he’s better on third down. In 2019, Lindsay converted around 25 percent of his carries on third down, while Gordon converted about 50 percent of such carries. While Lindsay has had 35 catches in each of his first two seasons, Gordon could catch 50 or more passes under Shurmur.

We’ll see Gordon likely win the starting job even though Lindsay will push him for that top spot. If Lindsay impresses Shurmur enough, then this could be a running-back-by-committee approach for the Broncos in 2020. Lindsay is too good to sit the bench, so the team needs to find a role for him as at least a change-of-pace back behind Gordon.

The language of the NFL is money, and Gordon is one of the highest-paid backs in the league. That means no matter how good Lindsay looks, Gordon is likely to be the starter.