EAGAN, Minn. — For most of the offseason, Royce Freeman has flown under the radar.
The Broncos signed Minnesota's Mike Boone in free agency to supplement lead back Melvin Gordon III, and they continued to reshape the room when they traded up for UNC's Javonte Williams in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
With Gordon, Williams and Boone at the top of the Broncos' unofficial depth chart, Freeman received little media attention in recent months.
The new makeup of the running backs room could understandably frustrate a veteran player like Freeman, who joined the Broncos as a third-round pick in 2018. But the fourth-year player has refused to be a victim of his circumstances.
"I can't really worry about what everybody's talking about or everything on the outside," Freeman told DenverBroncos.com on Thursday. "I've got to focus on the internal and what I can control, and that's my performance on the field and how I practice and how I prepare myself. That's what I've been doing, and I think I've done a good job of always trying to take it to the next level obviously. It's a day at a time and it'll all take care of itself."
Freeman's role with the Broncos may have changed Thursday, as Boone suffered a quad injury that reportedly will sideline him for the next four to six weeks. And while Freeman wished the best for his teammate during a conversation just minutes after the injury, he also said he would be ready to assume a larger role.
"[I'm] always prepared," Freeman said. "It's the game of football. I hope Mike is all well. I don't really know too much about what happened either. When my number's called I'll be more than ready to step in and make it happen."
Freeman's shown his potential before. As a rookie, Freeman started eight games and recorded 521 yards and five touchdowns as he held the lead role until he suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 7 against the Cardinals. Freeman scored three touchdowns in the first four games of his career, and he averaged more than eight yards per carry as a bruising runner in a close loss to the Chiefs. Freeman, though, has made just one start since that Week 7 game, as Phillip Lindsay assumed the role until 2020, when Gordon took over.
Freeman still believes he can return to that high level of football.
"I feel like I have a lot of great football to offer," Freeman said. "… I feel like I have a lot to offer, especially being multi-faceted in the pass game, run game and catching the ball out of the backfield. Whatever they need me to do, I think I'm more than capable."
Freeman said he's adopted little things from the games of Gordon, Williams and Boone and has also improved his receiving ability from his work with Running Backs Coach Curtis Modkins. The ability to learn from his teammates and grow his own game helped Freeman not linger on the additions of Boone and Williams.
"Especially at this level, playing this great game, especially at the NFL level there's always going to be competition," Freeman said. "To have that type of competition in your room is great, because at the same time, it's going to make you better."
The Broncos' coaching staff seems to have taken notice.
"Royce has had a good camp," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "… Obviously he knows what to do, he's a very smart football player. [It's his] second year in this system and Royce is a really good back, and he's definitely an NFL-quality back. We're happy to have the amount of backs that we have. We have a good crew of running backs."
CUSHENBERRY 'LOOKS LIKE A DIFFERENT GUY'
After adding Williams in the second round of this year's draft, General Manager George Paton addressed another offensive position with the third-round selection of center/guard Quinn Meinerz.
Lloyd Cushenberry III, one of the Broncos' third-round picks in 2020, said he wasn't surprised that the team added competition.
"[I] expected [it] based on how I played last year," Cushenberry said in June. "I didn't really think much of it. Competition is good for everyone. We're going to push each other and we're pushing each other already in OTAs. He's a great guy off the field and he's a great player. We're going to make each other better. Whoever steps up, that's who's going to get the job."
As the Broncos near their first preseason game, the job has solidly belonged to Cushenberry. The All-American from LSU has worked exclusively with the first-team offensive line, and he looks set to build on an All-Rookie performance in 2020.
"He's had a great camp and a great offseason," Paton said Friday. "He's gotten stronger and he's gotten more confident. [We] really asked a lot to play a rookie in the COVID year with no offseason and no training camp. The fact that he started 16 games, I was really impressed. It wasn't perfect, but he looks like a different guy than I saw on tape."
Cushenberry started all 16 games — becoming the second Broncos rookie to make a Week 1 start at center since the 1970 merger — and he was one of two offensive rookie to play every snap. And yet, Cushenberry dedicated himself to great improvement in the offseason, including an emphasis on playing a more physical brand of football.
"I've seen great growth," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Thursday. "We put him through a test last year. You can't imagine a young man coming from college with really no training, and in our first four games, we were playing — one was the Super Bowl champ — … playoff-caliber teams early against really good fronts and multiple fronts. He battled all year and didn't say a word and continued to improve throughout the year. I think he's on that steady climb still. He's got a bright future. He's smart, he's tough, he works hard, and he's really self-aware when something bad happens. We're pleased with his progress."
Shurmur, a college center at Michigan State, said he had an increased appreciation for what Cushenberry had to go through last season.
"I do because [the center is] a tire you kick when it doesn't go well, so I can appreciate that," Shurmur said. "I can shrug my shoulders sometimes and see what he's going through and I can remember it. There's a lot going on in there — there really is. I've been impressed by his progress."