ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos running back situation isn’t the under-a-microscope competition that’s happening at quarterback, but it might be the biggest unknown of training camp outside of what happens to Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater.
Melvin Gordon‘s RB1 status, the role of rookie second-round pick Javonte Williams, the vision for free-agent signee Mike Boone and what exactly happens to Royce Freeman in the middle of all that, are issues currently on the table.
“I think there’s enough work for everybody,” is how Broncos coach Vic Fangio put it before training camp opened. ” … We like [Gordon], we obviously like [Javonte] Williams and we like [Mike] Boone. So you never have enough backs, and I’m confident that there will be enough work for all of them.”
Ah, but the division of labor, now there’s the rub.
The pads went on Tuesday, so Broncos backs are still in the early stages of showing what they can do in a full-contact practice. One thing has been clear since the first snap of their offseason program, though: Things will be different at RB1. It’s difficult to see a scenario in which Gordon’s touch count doesn’t drop when Williams and Boone are healthy.
Gordon, after Phillip Lindsay suffered knee and hip injuries as well as a concussion on the way to injured reserve, finished the 2020 season as the Broncos’ leader in carries (215), rushing yards (986) and rushing touchdowns (nine). But with the arrival of new general manager George Paton came a slightly adjusted view on the backfield.
Lindsay’s restricted free-agent tender was rescinded by the Broncos and he was sent into the open market (he signed in Houston). The Broncos signed Boone in free agency and moved up in the second round of April’s draft to select Williams. Paton called Williams “one of our favorite players in the draft” and has said Boone, who played for the Vikings during Paton’s tenure as assistant general manager, can be a significant contributor in the Broncos’ offense.
For his part, Williams, who led major college football in broken tackles last season, is expected to show his power/quickness combination in the preseason and has already shown the Broncos plenty of comfort in the passing game.
“I’m just showing I’m not one-dimensional,” Williams said. “I can make plays. I can do things like that. A lot of people were saying I’m just a downhill type runner. … One thing I worked on a lot when I went home was catching the ball. Because I know in the league if you want to last a long time you have to be able to do more than run.”
What that specifically means for Gordon’s workload remains to be seen. And Gordon, who admitted last week he got “too caught up” through training camp last summer in his competition with Lindsay, says he is taking bigger-picture approach this time around.
“[I have the] utmost confidence in myself to come out here and work, so when I touch the field, I do what I need to do when my number is called,” Gordon said. “I can’t be worried about who I’m competing with … I’m going to always grind, and I’m going to always get it. I’m going to do what I need to do to help this team win. That’s why I’m here.”
Asked how he got “caught up” in the battle with Lindsay — a Denver native — Gordon added:
“A lot of people love Phil here. … They feel like you’re taking away from their guy. It was in my head a little bit. I got over it and I kind of dealt with what it was. I said we’re going to share this thing and we’re going to make our plays.”
The preseason games could offer a better glimpse of how the rotation could go, but when Gordon stayed away from the Broncos’ offseason workouts, save for the two days’ of practice in the mandatory minicamp, the Broncos called Williams’ number plenty and rookie responded. Williams and Boone split most of the work with the starters as the team went through OTAs and minicamp.
So far in training camp all three — Williams, Gordon and Boone — have each worked some with the starters. And none of that includes when the Broncos have sprinkled in Royce Freeman, a third-round pick in the 2018 draft.
Until Gordon’s DUI charges were dismissed in March — he plead guilty to reckless driving from an arrest last October — his guaranteed salary was something the Broncos could have voided. But with those charges dismissed, Gordon’s $4.5 million base salary remains guaranteed and he received a $2 million roster bonus when he reported to camp last week.
Bottom line is Fangio has promised the run game will be significant part of his quest for the Broncos to be “more physical” on offense.
“The narrative out there that the ball is being passed a lot more than it used to be in the NFL, is really not that true,” Fangio said. “I did a study of it this year, and from 1980 to now, passes have increased four-point-something percent. You still have to be able to run it and stop it. Yep, some teams rely on one more than the others, but running the ball is still very important.”