ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos were largely quiet on the offensive side of the ball in free agency.
General Manager George Paton didn't make a splash signing — and that's likely due in part to the team's solid offensive core. Over the past three seasons, the Broncos have added a young quarterback who flashes talent in Drew Lock; a dominant receiver in Courtland Sutton; two potential stars in Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler; two dynamic tight ends in Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam; a strong-willed back in Melvin Gordon III; a reshaped interior offensive line that includes Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III and Graham Glasgow; and a tackle in Ja'Wuan James who has been among the best in the league while on the field. And that's without mentioning Garett Bolles, who earned a contract extension last season as he earned second-team All-Pro honors.
Perhaps, then, Paton didn't see many holes on that side of the ball as he evaluated the team's needs ahead of the start of free agency. He chose to add just a single player: running back Mike Boone.
And while Boone may not be destined for the Pro Bowl as a featured running back, the former undrafted player from Cincinnati could fill a critical role for the Broncos.
"We signed him as a running back, obviously," Paton said at Boone's introductory press conference. "He earned [a spot on] the team playing special teams. [They] played him four phases on special teams and he's one of the top special teams players for the Vikings. He was playing behind [Vikings RB] Dalvin Cook, so he didn't have a lot of opportunity, but when he did have the opportunity, he really produced. I think he's going to help our room. He's going to add some special teams to the offensive side of the ball, which we lack. I'm really excited to have Mike Boone here."
On the offensive side of the ball, Boone should battle for the No. 2 running back role behind Gordon. Former third-round pick Royce Freeman and 2020 undrafted free agent LeVante Bellamy will also likely have eyes on that role, and it's not out of the question that the Broncos could add another young running back in April's NFL Draft. Boone, though, has showed potential when he received opportunities over the last two seasons in Minnesota. The 5-foot-10, 206-pound player averaged more than 5.4 yards per carry over each of the last two seasons, and he rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries to end the 2019 season. That performance, one of Boone's two starts, suggests he could take on an elevated role in the rushing game.
"Just being behind those guys, I stayed patient and I learned a lot and I'm excited for to opportunity to come here and show that," Boone said at his introductory press conference. "I feel like I've grown as a back. I didn't get as many snaps in Minnesota, but just being around those guys, I learned a lot from them and I'm ready to display it here."
Boone's contribution on the offensive end won't end there. As he demonstrated — particularly in the preseason — Boone appears to have soft hands and the necessarily speed and agility to be a threat out of the backfield. The Broncos struggled to take advantage of the running backs in the passing game in 2020, as the team's backs combined for just 52 catches for 272 yards. Twenty running backs in the league eclipsed that yardage total. If Denver can receive a boost from Boone in that area — as well as an expected uptick from Gordon — the team's offense could become more dynamic.
Boone may also be able to help the Broncos hide their intentions a bit better. An ideal NFL running back is able to pass protect as well as he's able to run, and that skill set prevents defenses from honing in on the run when that player is on the field. Boone said at his introductory press conference that he understands the value of pass protection, and if he can be an upgrade in that area, the Broncos would be able to feature both Gordon and Boone in critical third-down situations. In an elevated role, it's quite possible Boone becomes a true change-of-pace back to the Broncos' starter in Gordon.
The Broncos' new reserve running back, though, should be able to contribute on more than just the offensive end. In Minnesota, Boone was one of the team's best special teams players. He played the second-most special teams snaps among any Viking over the past two seasons, and he earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors last season after forcing a fumble in punt coverage. Denver held opponents to 8.1 yards per punt return in 2020, which ranked near league average. The Broncos' kickoff coverage unit didn't enjoy the same success, as the team gave up the second-most yards per kick return in the league. Boone could provide a necessary boost on that front.
"I just realized the importance of [special teams]," Boone said. "It complements the offense and the defense. To be able to flip field position and help the offense out and the defense out, I value that. That's how I started out coming in with the Vikings."
Perhaps Boone's best attribute is that he seems willing to help the team no matter where they need him to fill in.
"I'm excited," Boone said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity from George, from [Head Coach] Vic [Fangio]. I'm coming in to do whatever the organization asks of me, whether that's the No. 2 [running back] or special teams. Wherever they see me fit, I'm excited and I'll give my best effort towards it."
Unlike the defensive side of the ball, where the Broncos loaded up on starters, they took a more measured approach on offense. Boone will soon aim to show that's exactly what this Broncos team needs.
"[Paton] sees something in me to call me over and bring me with him [from Minnesota]," Boone said. "I'm just going to try to hold that standard. Just come in and get the job done and doing whatever I can for those guys. Again, I'm thankful for the opportunity and I appreciate the support from George."