ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When you evaluate where things stand for the Denver Broncos at running back this offseason, it looks more than a little shaky.
Leading rusher Melvin Gordon is facing a possible suspension to open the 2021 season and talked openly at season’s end about hoping the Broncos keep him
Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay just finished the season on injured reserve for the second time in the past three years
The Broncos had one touchdown reception from a running back in 2020
Still, there were moments during the Broncos’ 5-11 season when the running game had them looking their best, when the offensive line could show its physical side and the Broncos could use play-action.
“I think they’re just really getting into a rhythm,” Gordon said of the line. “… I’m super excited and stoked to see what we can do as a unit with them boys up front next year.”
The Broncos know the deal. They reside in the AFC West where the Kansas City Chiefs rule the division and have scored at least 30 points in 58% of their regular-season games during Patrick Mahomes‘ three full years as the starting quarterback.
Grind it out isn’t going to get it done. So, the suggestion, or even the feeling inside the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex, isn’t to put a ground-and-pound approach on the front burner. After all, five teams in the NFL threw at least 40 touchdown passes this past season and four of them played in this past weekend’s conference championship games.
But quarterback Drew Lock and the Broncos were better when the running backs had an active piece of the production. The problem is that Gordon, Lindsay and the rest of the running backs are a rather large question mark.
Newly-hired general manager George Paton has said he believes the best way to succeed over the long haul is to draft and develop players. But he is also remaining open-minded: “Now when you go outside, will you be aggressive and dip into free agency or the trade market? Yeah, every now and then, but it takes that right type of player to do that. I think we all believe in drafting and developing and making them into your own. That’s the best way to build a football team.”
Gordon, who led the team in carries (215), rushing yards (986) and rushing touchdowns (nine), also had a DUI arrest in October and could face a three-game suspension from the NFL to begin the 2021 season. A suspension could also enable the Broncos, if they wish, to void the salary guarantees in Gordon’s deal next season. It would also make it easier to release him if they wished.
His next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 24 with a potential jury trial April 8 if the case is not resolved before then.
“So, we’ll see, hopefully it works out, and hopefully they like me enough to kind of put all that stuff to the side,” Gordon said of his contract status. “I guess in a couple months or so we’ll see what’s up.”
Lindsay had the Broncos’ longest touchdown run of the season — 55 yards during the comeback win over the Chargers in November — and once again was consistently a spark when in the game. But he had surgery on his right wrist after both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and he finished this year on injured reserve (knee, hip).
Lindsay is a restricted free agent — the Broncos could match any offers he receives from other teams — and after raising the idea of a new deal for Lindsay last offseason, there has been little movement from the Broncos’ decision-makers on that front.
Royce Freeman, also a restricted free agent, had just 35 carries this season, and as a whole the running back group had little impact in the passing game. Gordon led the running backs with 32 of the group’s 52 catches, but he averaged just 4.9 yards per catch, or just three-tenths of a yard more than he averaged per run.
It’s all on the pile now as the Broncos move through the earliest stages of Paton’s tenure during a week that includes Senior Bowl practices and the Chiefs preparing for their second consecutive Super Bowl.
“I just think we have to look from within and just build this thing the best we can,” Paton said. “You start looking outside — obviously we’re aware of how good this division is with Kansas City and some up-and-coming teams with the Raiders and the Chargers, but you need to build within first. We know what’s out there.”