Rookie Royce Freeman could finally be Denver's feature-back answer

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Royce Freeman had not even slipped a Denver Broncos jersey over his head before the team’s top football decision-maker offered a matter-of-fact description of what he thought the rookie running back could be for the team.

Freeman was the Broncos’ third-round pick in this past April’s draft -- the 71st player selected overall. Just hours after the selection, Broncos GM John Elway said: “He’s a big banger that we haven’t had for a while, so we’re excited to have him.’’

Two months later, Freeman, with his combination of size and speed, made it fairly clear that he’s going to push Devontae Booker to be at the top of the running back depth chart. Asked just before the Broncos finished minicamp if he believed Freeman could put himself in the conversation to be the team’s lead back, Broncos coach Vance Joseph said “absolutely.”

Opinions differ around the league about the importance of the “lead back” in today’s pass-happy league. But that being said, Sean McVay’s Rams offense -- the league’s current “it’’ scheme -- featured a 1,300-yard rusher in Todd Gurley, who finished with 279 carries and 13 rushing touchdowns.

Overall, six of the top scoring offenses in the league also finished among the top 10 in rushing, including all of the top five scoring offenses. So, pounding the rock with a feature back still has some merit.

For their part, the Broncos haven’t had a running back top 250 carries in a season since Reuben Droughns finished with 275 carries in 2004. Now, with a new QB and an offense looking to get back on track following a 5-11 season, they have Freeman. The 229-pound Oregon product flashed 4.5-second speed in his pre-draft workouts, averaged 5.9 yards per carry over four seasons and had three seasons with at least 16 rushing touchdowns.

“I think I showed durability and the ability to be there game in, game out,” Freeman said. “I think I showed at Oregon I can deliver the blow as a runner. I’m excited to compete, and we have a good environment in the running back room. I think we do want to see each other do well.”

Joseph has maintained that the Broncos only want a primary running back if one takes over the job.

Elway might see it differently considering this is the fifth running back he has drafted since taking over football operations in 2011. None of the previous four selections, including De’Angelo Henderson from the 2017 draft, has had so much as a 900-yard season.

C.J. Anderson was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and had his first 1,000-yard season in 2017, when he finished with 1,007 yards, with 61 yards in the regular-season finale. Booker, who was a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft, was poised to compete with Anderson to be the No. 1 back when training camp opened last July. But Booker arrived with pain in his wrist and his camp physical revealed a fracture that kept him out of the lineup until Week 4.

Anderson remained the primary back and Booker closed out last season with just 79 carries. However, Anderson was released in April, so it is now Booker and Freeman who are expected to divide the bulk of the work.

“I think we have guys who can do similar things,” Booker said. “We all want the ball, but we all want to see each other do well.”

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who held the interim title last season after Mike McCoy was fired in November, won’t fully unveil what he has planned until the regular season. But Joseph has made it clear the run game will fit into that equation, more efficiently -- “just better,” he said -- than it did last season when they were 12th in rushing, but tied for 25th in rushing touchdowns with just two 100-yard rushing games (both by Anderson).

And if a lead back is the solution, then Freeman or Booker will likely wear that title.

“I feel good about competing,” Freeman said. “You just compete and they’ll make the best decision.”