State of the Broncos: Will running back remain a strength in 2022?
The Broncos finished the 2021 season with a 7-10 record. It was the team’s fifth-straight losing season. It also marked the sixth-consecutive year in which the franchise failed to make the playoffs.
As a result, Vic Fangio was shown the door. The head coach was 19-30 during his three seasons in Denver. A coaching change is on the way.
What will the new head coach inherit? What will his new staff have to work with in Denver?
The “State of the Broncos” series is a position-by-position look at what went well in 2021, what didn’t and what needs to change for ’22 and beyond. In this installment, it’s time to take a look at a position that was one of the strengths of the team in 2021 – running back.
Pro Football Focus Grades
Melvin Gordon – 77.8
Javonte Williams – 75.9
Mike Boone – 58.7
The Broncos headed into the season with two viable options at running back. Melvin Gordon was the veteran, a proven player who had played well during his first season in Denver. Javonte Williams was the rookie, a back seen as the heir apparent to Gordon in the backfield.
The plan was to split carries between the two. And the Broncos executed it to perfect.
On the season, Gordon carried the ball 203 times. Williams also had 203 rushes. Even Steven. Fifty-fifty. Just as Vic Fangio had intended.
Both running performed well. Gordon led the team with 918 yards. Williams was right behind him with 903. And both were threats in the passing game, too. Gordon had 28 catches for 213 yards, while his counterpart had 43 for 316. They were clearly the Broncos two best offensive weapons.
They also did most of the scoring. On a team that scored a total of 36 offensive touchdowns, a paltry number in 17 games, Gordon and Williams accounted for 17, nearly 50 percent of the production.
Even on a bad offense, the running back duo was effective. They helped the Broncos have the 10th-best rushing attack in the NFL in terms of average yards per carry. That’s an impressive feat on a team that didn’t have much of a passing game and faced defenses that loaded the box on a weekly basis.
Gordon helped by eluding tacklers. He was the shifty of the two. Williams did it by running through them. He was one of the best backs in the league at breaking tackles.
Together, they were a dynamic duo in the Broncos backfield all season long.
A Look Ahead
Melvin Gordon just concluded the second year of a two-year, $16-million deal he signed with the Broncos prior to the 2020 season. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent, with most people believing that he won’t return.
On the open market, Gordon is expected to command an average salary of $5.2 million. Depending on the length of the deal, that’s not too rich for a team currently boasting $50 million in salary cap space. So if the new head coach and offensive coordinator want to keep the combination in place, money wouldn’t be an obstacle.
Most likely, however, the new regime will want to see what Williams can do as the feature back. He only got one start as a rookie, but he did post 102 rushing yards and 76 more through the air in the Broncos loss at the Chiefs. It was an encouraging sign.
That said, there are some concerns about whether or not Williams can carry the load for 17 weeks. He’s never been a running back that has had to shoulder 20 carries per game. In college, he split time with Michael Carter. Last season, he was platooning with Gordon. So becoming a workhorse, bell-cow back will be a new experience.
That doesn’t mean Williams can’t do the job. It just means he hasn’t in the past.
If the Broncos are looking to give the bruising running back a breather every now and then, Mike Boone is an option. After signing a two-year deal with Denver prior to the 2021 season, he was hampered most of the year by injuries. He had just four carries for 35 yards and two receptions for 22 yards. But he did show promise in training camp prior to being sidelined.
Denver could opt for a more-reliable option. In free agency, there are some intriguing names who will be available.
The list of unrestricted free agents includes David Johnson, Leonard Fournette, Cordarelle Patterson, Raheem Mostert, Rashard Penny, Sony Michel and James Connor. Someone like Jerrick McKinnon might be an option, as he’s flashed in recent weeks with the Chiefs.
It all depends on what the Broncos are looking to add. Do they want someone who can split carries again with Williams? Or are they looking for a change-of-pace back? The answer to that question will dictate where they look, whether it’s in free agency or the draft.
A year ago, Denver moved up to take Williams with the 35th overall pick. They don’t figure to use that kind of a premium selection on another back this time around. But with 11 total picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, George Paton can easily add depth at the position.
One thing is for sure: The future is bright for the Broncos at running back. Javonte Williams will get a chance to be the star of the show. The only question is who will be his understudy.