Why Melvin Gordon will still impact the Denver Broncos' offense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Running back Melvin Gordon III's tenure with the Denver Broncos always seems to carry some kind of asterisk.

During his two seasons in Denver, he led the team in rushing twice, led or tied for the lead in carries twice and led the team in rushing touchdowns twice, yet often fans spent time discussing how other people should carry the ball instead.

In 2020 his carries came at the expense of fan favorite Phillip Lindsay, a graduate of Denver's South High School and who had a Pro Bowl season the year before Gordon was signed. Last season every carry came at the expense of Javonte Williams, a rookie second-round pick.

"I've said it, I've always had the mindset, I'm going to go get it," Gordon said. "I'm going to do what I do -- do what's best for the squad and do what I do to make them want to play me."

Williams and Gordon finished with the same number of carries last season (203). The Broncos have plans -- big plans -- for the tackle-shredding Williams, so much so they didn't re-sign Gordon in free agency until the last week of April. Gordon promised general manager George Paton at the time, "I'm not going to lay down."

So far in training camp he has kept that promise. He flashed big-play pop in early run-game work and has displayed the receiving form he had earlier in his career, when he had four seasons of at least 40 catches -- two for more than 50 -- with the Chargers.

First-year Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett gets to coach Gordon for the first time this season and has been quick to say he believes the running back will impact the offense.

"I've been watching Melvin forever," Hackett added. "He's just a downhill, skilled player. He can catch from the backfield, pass protect, and all those things."

It wasn't always a sure thing with the Broncos this season. When the 2021 season ended Gordon said he would "look around" in free agency for potential opportunities to carry the ball more than he did splitting time with Williams.

It's why he didn't sign with the Broncos until he had seen his market value and after the Broncos had traded for quarterback Russell Wilson.

"Bottom line is Melvin loves ball," said Broncos running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley. "He knows what the situation is here, they all do. But it's like a menu and sometimes we're going to need a little more of something on the menu than something else. The next week that could be different. But my experience as a player was sharing the ball, sharing the ball to win. They're going to all compete to be the starter, they'll all have that chance, but it's a good room, they're going to produce when they have their opportunities no matter how it goes."

Gordon said he believes the Broncos are committed to a running game that can support multiple options and that Hackett "is drawing enough stuff up that everybody can have the chance to get the ball."

Hackett and his staff intend to make the team's running backs a bigger part of the passing game than in recent Broncos seasons, and that is where Gordon could find plenty of snaps. The Broncos could also use some personnel groupings with both Gordon and Williams in the formation. In Hackett's three seasons as the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator, running back Aaron Jones was second or third on the team in receptions each year. In one of those seasons (2019) the Packers had two running backs among the team's top three in receptions.

"Having all those running backs that will make the roster, you're going to utilize their talents," said Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten. "When we were in Atlanta, we had Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Two guys that could roll and do special things. We had Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon and [Jamaal] Williams [with the Packers]. Those guys are going to get their touches but they're also going to get put out wide. We're going to utilize them the best we can."

In the end, Wheatley said it could fall on him to keep all of the team's backs engaged as the ebb and flow of a season plays out.

"For a veteran guy like Melvin or any back, I would always ask, would you want 25 carries a game and no chance at a Super Bowl or fewer carries than that on a team that can compete for things like the Super Bowl," Wheatley said. "To me it's an easy answer, but it's my job to make sure all of them are ready to contribute in whatever way they have to."