Backfield Breakdown: The Denver Broncos

The Footballguys staff looks at how the Broncos backfield will shake out

This article is about an 8-minute read.

In a Backfield Breakdown, we will look at a team's running backs from all angles. Is there a bell-cow back on the roster? How about sleepers? What roles do we foresee from these backs?

Let's find out about the Broncos right now.

Normally, when a team sports a returning 1000-yard rusher and another back, Royce Freeman, who had almost 500 yards and over 40 catches, there isn't a lot of change in the offing. Like much of 2020, though, the Denver Broncos offseason wasn't normal. Despite the presence of Phillip Lindsay -- who totaled 1011 yards last year -- Denver added Melvin Gordon III with a 2-year, $16 million deal.

Can these three running backs all find roles? Is there a primary back here? Is Freeman anything more than a late-round dart throw?

How does this backfield shake out in 2020?

Chad Parsons

I see Melvin Gordon III getting every opportunity to be the clear 1A option with Phillip Lindsay as the RB2. Royce Freeman is one of the more talented NFL backs who, without an injury ahead of him, will struggle for a Week 1 role. Gordon has RB1 upside especially if Denver's offense takes a macro step forward from 2019, but could level as an RB2 with a few RB1 moments if Drew Lock is not the answer. If Gordon and Lindsay do not miss time, I could see Freeman as a trade candidate this season to a team stretched at the position.

Ryan Hester

I agree with Chad. The tea leaves suggest that Denver's plan is something like a 60-30-10 split between Gordon, Lindsey, and Freeman. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that if Gordon were to miss time, Lindsay shouldn't be considered a legitimate RB1 candidate.

Despite being the smaller of Denver's returning backs, Lindsay was not the better pass-catcher on the team. Freeman out-targeted Lindsay 50 to 48 last season, neither back exceeded four targets in any game after the team's Week 10 bye, and Lindsay never surpassed three in that stretch. The only player with any path to RB1 upside here is Gordon. But the blend of those chances being slim and his current price tag make him a stay-away.

Jeff Haseley

I'm excited for Melvin Gordon III in the Denver offense, especially with Pat Shurmur as the team's offensive coordinator. Instead of seeing a lot of 12 personnel (double tight end package) with former offensive coordinator Rick Scangarello, Shurmur will try to get his weapons in space, preferably using more 11-personnel with three wide receivers. As for the ground game, I think we will continue to see a zone rushing attack with more outside zone blocking, but Shurmur is capable of changing his offense to modify to its strengths. Shurmur's track record is a good one for his running backs, going back to his coaching and coordinator days where he had a direct influence, he had success with nearly all of his backs, i.e Steven Jackson, Trent Richardson (He finished 9th in Shurmur's offense), LeSean McCoy, and recently Saquon Barkley. Gordon should thrive in this system and so will Phillip Lindsay. I would be surprised if Gordon doesn't receive the majority of the team's carries, but I don't think we can forget about Lindsay in this offense.

Lindsay has the potential to be a flex starter or at least a bench player who can be started if Gordon misses time. He is surprisingly good in goal-line attempts, scoring four times in five carries inside the three-yard line last season. The Broncos offense has accumulated talent and weapons at all positions. The ability for Shurmur to coach Drew Lock, and ultimately for Lock to execute, is the big unknown that will be looked at under a microscope this season. Gordon should be able to easily produce RB2 numbers, and the effectiveness of Lock and the Broncos offense, in general, will determine if he can reach RB1 levels and top-10 status.

Matt Waldman

I think Royce Freeman is hoping for a clean slate elsewhere and, if there's a significant injury to a starter elsewhere, Freeman will be on a shortlist of runners that a team would inquire about a possible trade. If the Broncos feel good about a third back or the offer is too good to ignore, the deal gets done.

Otherwise, Freeman is a great reserve for a little Phillip Lindsay and the veteran Melvin Gordon III. Lindsay's talents are notable but the team clearly doesn't trust Lindsay's size to withstand the punishment of a lead role long-term. Gordon is an above-average back whose skills are on the cusp of top talent but not quite there.

Expect Gordon to lead in touches, yards, and touchdowns and Lindsay to vie with Gordon for the lead in backfield targets as a receiver. Freeman will earn mop-up duty if the Broncos earn a huge lead or suffer a huge deficit.

Phil Alexander

Gordon is the only worthwhile fantasy option here. I have him closer to 65% of Denver's backfield touches, which includes the majority of the receiving and goal-line work. He's a moderate value for as long as his ADP stays in Round 3. Our Dave Larkin recently put the spotlight on Gordon and made a strong case that he'll remain an RB1 for fantasy.

Lindsay will operate in a change-of-pace role that will only translate to the box score in weeks he's able to break a long run. Freeman, as Matt stated, needs a new team. I'd love to see Seattle come calling if Chris Carson's hip gives him trouble.

Devin Knotts

I think we are all greatly underlooking the impact that Pat Shurmur will bring to this offense. Shurmur runs a one running back system even dating back to the Peyton Hillis/Montario Hardesty days back in Cleveland. The one exception here is 2017 when he was with the Vikings in which he had to run a tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon after Dalvin Cook got injured after 85 touches in 4 games. Melvin Gordon III is a complete back and can fill the receiving role which was something Latavius Murray could not do.

I fully expect Melvin Gordon III to receive 80%+ of the touches here which leaves no value for Lindsay and Royce Freeman will be on the outside looking in. I would even go as far as to say that if Freeman does not embrace special teams, he could be cut as the Broncos signed LeVante Bellamy and gave him the highest signing bonus of all of the undrafted free agents.

Andy Hicks

I guess these questions depend on how Melvin Gordon III adapts and how well Drew Lock can take a hold of this offense.

If Lock is fragile and cannot get on the same page as his young receivers, then this team will be given to Melvin Gordon III.

If the more exciting happens and Lock, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, and Noah Fant play well, then I can see Phillip Lindsay being the more versatile back to enhance the mix.

Simply put I think Gordon and Lindsay both have good games depending on individual game scripts. You want more reliability, you take Gordon. You want boom or bust in any given week, then it’s Lindsay.

At this stage, Royce Freeman needs to wait for an injury.

Andrew Davenport

I'm with everyone on Freeman. I don't see him being a big part of this offense absent an injury, or two.

Lindsay is one of those guys who never seems to get the respect he deserves, especially in Denver. I like to talk about how several coaching staffs have not wanted to give Aaron Jones the touches everyone else clamored for and that perhaps it was the staff deciding he was more effective and less likely to get hurt with a more limited touch ceiling. Maybe this is what is happening to Lindsay. Whether that's deserved or not it doesn't really matter, because even though he's coming off two solid seasons it looks like he's going to be relegated to a pretty clear backup role.

I'm not sure that I'm totally in on Devin's opinion that Gordon is going to see 4 out of 5 touches, but I think I'd split the difference between that 80% and Ryan's 60%. Two Gordon series against one Lindsay series feels about right, and that would leave the touch count somewhere around 65-70% in favor of Gordon. After hearing Devin's comment I went and looked harder at Shurmur's numbers and I think it's a strong point, but Shurmur does have a couple of seasons on his resume where a back like Lindsay earned a sizable secondary role. I do believe his body of work to date means Denver gives him enough of an opportunity to be occasionally useful for fantasy but generally not someone to count on. Early in the offseason, I felt that Lindsay was a value because he would have some stand-alone worth, but I'm now largely staying away from him altogether. He has value as a backup and in deeper leagues, but the kind of money Gordon got, and the offense Denver is going to run, makes me think Gordon will get the chance to have a strong grip on the opportunities.

Jordan McNamara

Royce Freeman appears buried in the backfield. With an outstanding rushing and receiving profile in college on top of high-end athleticism, Freeman could benefit from new scenery. For example, he could be a starter in Miami.

As for Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay, Gordon should get the first opportunity and I'd expect him to lead the backfield. Denver played out the first two seasons of Lindsay's carer only to see Denver sign Gordon to a two year deal in free agency. It seems most likely Gordon will an opportunity to lead the backfield at Lindsay's expense. I'll be curious to watch their usages as neither Lindsay nor Gordon are high end receiving options and neither is a prototypical short-yardage back.

Jeff Pasquino

While I clearly concede that this is Gordon's backfield and that he will be the fantasy RB to own in Denver, the questions regarding the usage of Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have to be looked at with a different perspective.

While I agree with Ryan that the targets may have favored Freeman from the season-long perspective (50 - 48), a better metric is to look at the Denver offense only when Drew Lock was under center (the final five games of 2019).

Snaps / Carries / Targets over that stretch:

  • Lindsay 155 / 77 / 11
  • Freeman 143 / 29 / 13

Lindsay has shown that he can carry the bigger load and he will be the second back to Gordon, and likely the starter if (when) Gordon gets hurt. Freeman is little more than deep depth that won't see many snaps unless Gordon gets hurt, and then I'd see it 70/30 Lindsay. Until that (seemingly inevitable) time, Gordon will get 60-65% of the work with Lindsay getting most of the rest. If you draft Gordon, be sure to get Lindsay and not worry about Freeman at all.

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