ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos are always talking about finding a running back to be “the guy.” Carry the rock, and keep carrying it.
Yet their last two 1,000-yard rushers were C.J. Anderson (2017) and Knowshon Moreno (2013). Anderson now plays for the Carolina Panthers, and Moreno hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2014 with the Miami Dolphins.
The Broncos, in fact, haven’t had a running back top 250 carries or an average of a rather pedestrian 15.63 per game since Reuben Droughns had 275 in 2004. As a result, the football world, real or fantasy, might cast a skeptical eye on rookie starter Royce Freeman in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
“He can carry the load from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “ … That’s what he showed at Oregon. He was their main guy. He had a lot of work, and he stayed healthy through the work. That’s an issue for most young backs. Can they carry the load for 16 weeks? I think with his background, his body type, he should be able to carry the load for 16 weeks.”
When the Broncos trimmed their roster to 53 players this weekend, they kept three running backs in addition to fullback Andy Janovich, and two of them -- Freeman and Phillip Lindsay. -- were rookies. That was one fewer than a year ago, and it speaks to what Freeman presents.
Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway hinted as much during the draft in April, when he said "it’s been a while" since the team had a back like the 6-foot, 229-pound Freeman, who ran 4.5 in the 40-yard dash in his pre-draft workouts. While some in the league took a pause at Freeman’s college workload before the draft -- 947 carries in four seasons at Oregon to go with 79 career receptions -- the Broncos saw it as a career compliment.
“I think they thought I had to be on the field, in the lineup, every week to have those carries,” Freeman said. “… That when my number was called, I was there.”
Freeman led the team with three rushing touchdowns in the preseason -- he didn’t play in the preseason finale -- and flashed both elusiveness and grind-it-out efficiency. It was clear two weeks into training camp, as the Broncos consistently rotated him with the starters, that he was on track to be the starter.
Now, it remains to be seen what that means in a Broncos offense, with Bill Musgrave calling plays. Musgrave called plays for the final six games last season after Mike McCoy was fired, but the Broncos came down the stretch in a hodge-podge of what they had been doing with McCoy and things Musgrave wanted to do.
This year’s playbook is Musgrave’s, and while Joseph has made it no secret he wants a team that can pound the ball, the Broncos’ biggest offseason investment came at quarterback, with the signing of Case Keenum.
“We’re always looking for that balance,” Musgrave said during camp. “We’re going to do things we think we need to do to finish drives with touchdowns.”
For Freeman, that doesn’t yet mean he is the every-down back. Joseph said Monday, even as he described why Freeman would be the starter, that Devontae Booker will get plenty of considerations as the third-down back and Lindsay will have a role each week.
“… Royce is our leading runner, but on third downs you’ll probably see Booker, and obviously having a package for Phillip is going to be important to each game plan we have each week,” Joseph said.
Joseph added that Freeman has been "really good" in pass protection situations both in practice and in preseason games, so Freeman could see at least some three-down work along the way. Ultimately, the Broncos seem inclined to give him as much work as he can handle, and if they play with a lead more than in last season’s 5-11 finish, there will be plenty of work to go around.
History or not, Freeman said if the Broncos want to hand him the ball, he’ll take it, over and over again.
“Like I said, if my number is called, I’ll be ready, as many times as they think they should call it,” Freeman said.