ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Royce Freeman just needs to crack the code.
At least that's what Broncos ring-of-famer Rod Smith says. He is the franchise's all-time leader in most receiving categories, so when he offers a rookie a key to success, it's probably best to listen.
“... If you don’t block, you don’t play," Smith said. “That’s it. Some guys won’t have to as much because they’re who they are and they do what they do. But I tell guys all the time, 'You want to get on the field, you want the ball, then show them you know what the hell you’re doing when you don’t get the ball.'"
It’s not too difficult to trace the line from Mike Shanahan’s Broncos offense in which Smith both flourished and blocked plenty to Gary Kubiak’s offense to the one in which Bill Musgrave will call plays this season for the team. And while rookie receivers such as Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are also pushing for plenty of playing time, Freeman’s ability to get the ball as much as both he and the Broncos’ decision-makers would like will hinge on those other things.
Through Denver's two preseason games, the Oregon product is the team's leading rusher, with 58 yards in limited duty. He also has the team's only two rushing touchdowns of the preseason.
He has shown vision, power and speed, but on two separate occasions in recent days, Broncos coach Vance Joseph finished a sentence about Freeman with “but we’ll see how he does in protections."
“I know that, too," Freeman said. “ ... It’s all technique, and I feel like it's just repetitions, repetitions. You can always polish things up. You can always be a little bit better at something. I feel like maybe you don’t get it right on the first time, but you keep doing it and doing it. It’s a big thing."
It’s a big thing because, as Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said, “sometimes the back is kind of the last line of defense." So the running back who can not only run the ball with front-line ability, but also block when he has to, gets to stay on the field the most.
In a kind of football transitive property, he is then the most trusted player at the position who gets to line up in more situations and will almost certainly get the most carries.
“But for a back coming out of college, you’re asking them to do something they weren't really asked to do in college," said Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “It can take some work."
Musgrave calls it “sticking your face in the fan," and in Oregon’s ultra-fast scheme, which consistently kept defenses on their heels and out of attack mode, Freeman said he just didn’t “have to block a guy straight up that often."
Take a look at the game video and those words quickly ring true, but the Broncos have found that their three rookies at the position -- Freeman, David Williams and Philip Lindsay -- have all been willing to make the commitment. For Freeman, who has spent plenty of time with the starting offense in practice and in the two preseason games, it is now a front-burner issue.
“I know they want to see it," Freeman said. “It’s important, and I want to be somebody who is reliable no matter the situation. And if that’s getting in there to keep somebody from hitting Case, I need to do that."
“I think all those guys have done well with that," Keenum said. “But Royce has had a couple plays when he’s peeled back and gotten a guy blitzing. That’s what you need from all of them -- you need backs who know what’s going on out there plus can run the ball."
That’s what the Broncos would like Freeman to be, since he is a big back -- 6-foot, 229 pounds -- who flashed 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash in his pre-draft workouts. Elway went as far as to say “we haven’t had a guy like him in a while" in the weeks that followed the draft.
“I just keep it pretty simple, just come in every day ready to work hard," Freeman said. “Because you’re not getting the ball if you don’t do the whole job I don’t think. I want to show them I can do the whole job if they want me to. That’s it."