The Broncos' 2020 season is almost here, and as training camp approaches, we're taking a look at each of the Broncos' position groups. In this set of previews, we'll take a deep dive into what we know about the given position group and what we still need to learn. We'll also identify a player to watch and choose a battle that bears watching. At the end of the series, we'll provide an overarching look at the best training camp battles and which players have the most to prove.
We continue the series with a look at the running back position.
(Did you miss the previous story in the series? Click here to read about the Broncos' quarterback position.)
What we know:
The Broncos became just the third team in the NFL with multiple Pro Bowlers at the running back position when they signed two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon III to a two-year contract in March. The deal came as a bit of a surprise, as the Broncos had leaned on Phillip Lindsay over the previous two seasons. Lindsay, an undrafted player out of Colorado, became the first undrafted running back to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons to begin his career, and he also became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl. A quick, shifty, between-the-tackles runner, Lindsay led the Broncos in rushing and total touchdowns in each of the previous two seasons.
The Broncos, though, decided to add another dynamic player to the fold.
"Obviously we had two good backs in Royce Freeman and Lindsay," President of Football Operations/GM John Elway said after the signing. "We know that [Lindsay] is a guy that's had a great year for us. I know there's people going, 'Why do you need another horse?' Well, when you have an opportunity for Melvin Gordon to come in here, we felt like it was an addition to the team. He's a guy that obviously has had a lot of success in this league. He's scored a lot of touchdowns and has caught the football a ton. So we feel like with him — with Melvin, as well as Phillip — that we've got a great one-two punch, and we'll only get better in the backfield.
"Ultimately, we have to score more points this year. We've struggled on the offensive side the last two, three years, and so we've got to get better on that side. I think Melvin will be one of those key pieces to help us get better."
Gordon, a two-time Pro Bowler, has rushed for at least eight touchdowns in each of the past four seasons. He's the only player in the NFL to accomplish that feat, and he's totaled more than 1,000 all-purpose yards in three of his five seasons. Out of the backfield, Gordon is particularly dangerous; he has 224 career receptions for 1,873 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Former third-round pick Royce Freeman also returns after serving in a supporting role in 2019. Freeman carried the ball 132 times for 496 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Undrafted free agent LeVante Bellamy is the newest addition, and he will try to become the latest undrafted back to earn a roster spot for the Broncos.
Khalfani Muhammad, who spent time on the Broncos' practice squad in 2019, and Jeremy Cox round out the group.
What we need to learn:
As we head into training camp, we know the Broncos have a pair of talented backs. Gordon and Lindsay combine to form the best duo in the AFC West and potentially one of the best groups in the entire league. What we still need to figure out, though, is how the two players fit together. Lindsay and Gordon are both between-the-tackles runners, while Gordon seems to have an edge as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
It may take several weeks before we're able to determine the strengths of each player in Pat Shurmur's offense. It's often hard to tell in training camp how successful the run game will be, as teams rarely employ "live" tackling periods. We should, though, be able to get a sense for reps based on how Shurmur and Running Backs Coach Curtis Modkins cycle through Gordon, Lindsay, Freeman and Bellamy.
As camp progresses, we should get some answers to the following questions: Will Gordon and Lindsay split reps as the starting back? Could Lindsay benefit from the reduction in carries? Will Freeman still get some touches with the starting unit? Which back is the most-trusted pass protector?
Player to watch:
We've written quite a bit about Gordon and Lindsay — and will get back to them in just a minute — so let's turn our attention to Bellamy.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Western Michigan product was named the Mid-American Conference's MVP and Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,546 yards and an NCAA-high 23 touchdowns in 2019. During his career with the WMU Broncos, Bellamy carried the ball for 3,720 yards and 35 touchdowns and tallied 6 yards per carry.
If the preseason is shortened, Bellamy may be hard-pressed to show his talent, but he's certainly a capable player. Don't be surprised if he pushes Freeman for a roster spot.
Battle to watch:
Melvin Gordon III vs. Phillip Lindsay
Let's revisit the competition for the starting spot, because Lindsay has made it clear through a couple of interviews this offseason that he plans to retain the job. The pair of Pro Bowl players do different things well, so it's not as if the competition boils down to who is the fastest player. Gordon is more adept at breaking tackles, carrying the ball by the goal line and catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll need to show, though, that he can bump his yards-per-carry average up from the 3.8 yards he averaged in 2019. He'll also need to cut down on his turnovers, as he fumbled four times last seasons and has lost the ball 14 times in his career. Compare that to Lindsay, who hasn't fumbled in 486 career touches, and it's clear Gordon must prove he can be trusted in big situations. Gordon also must stay healthy; he has played all 16 games just once in his career.
Lindsay, meanwhile, must regain the explosiveness he showed as a rookie. In 2019, Lindsay had just 22 carries of at least 10 yards after earning 30 carries of the same length as a rookie. The Colorado product also needs to improve his production as a pass catcher. In Shurmur's system, that's paramount for running backs. Lindsay has caught 35 passes in each of his first two seasons for 241 yards and 196 yards, respectively.
Both players should expect carries and touches in 2020, but both Lindsay and Gordon have the opportunity to emerge from camp as the lead back. This should be among the best position battles on the Broncos' roster.