Broncos running backs know carries may be week-to-week riddle

Between Phillip Lindsay (30), Devontae Booker (23) and Royce Freeman (28) the Broncos appear to be a share-the-load operation at running back. Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Who will carry the ball for the Denver Broncos? The answer to one of the biggest topics of conversation, in and around the team, resides within 48-year-old running backs coach Curtis Modkins.

A publicly mild-mannered sort, Modkins will have a significant vote in how many carries Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker or perhaps, even, a back to named later -- the Broncos had seventh-year veteran Theo Riddick in for a visit this week -- will have on game days.

It's something everyone from fantasy football aficionados to the most passionate of Broncos faithful and even the running backs themselves want to know.

"As a general philosophy, I've always tried to be really honest with them," Modkins said of the running backs. "Make sure they understand, in this league everybody ends up having a role, and it's up to us as individuals to be best we can in those roles. Now, they have a lot to do with what their role becomes, to determine their role, but overall sometimes it's a feel thing, sometimes just a matchup, but they all have to be ready for it when the opportunity arrives, but I don't have specific number for them."

One thing that's for certain, Broncos coach Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello believe the run game should have a significant place in the Broncos' offense, even in a league that is more pass-happy than ever.

The Broncos look like a share-the-load operation. So far in camp Lindsay, a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie last season, Freeman and Booker have already taken plenty of practice snaps dispersed across the first- and second-team offenses. They already know, at least they are already preparing for the idea, their "touches" will be a moving target.

"Royce and I -- the whole running back room is a real unique situation -- we all enjoy each other," Lindsay said. "We've known each other for a long time because the majority of us played in the Pac-12 together. With me, Royce and [Booker] -- a lot of time you like to forget about Book, but he is a big, big part of what we're going to do this year -- we all stick together and that's how we do it. When Royce is hot, we are there for Royce. When Book is hot, we are there for Book. When I get hot, they are there for me. I know you guys like to pin us against each other and make it a competition, but at the end of the day, we all three wear the same helmet."

That may not be much help, or solace, to those wired to their fantasy football lineups each week. But it is decidedly how it's going to be unless injuries intervene, as they did last season when Lindsay became the first option when Freeman was hurt and then Freeman became the first option to close out the season when Lindsay was hurt.

The question of carries in the Broncos' offense has been a familiar one for more than two decades, even as the offense churned out the 1,000-yard backs. Not since Reuben Droughns in 2004 have the Broncos had a running back hit the 250-carry mark, though. C.J. Anderson got close in 2017 (245 carries) as did Willis McGahee in 2011 (249 carries), but chances are that 250-carry mark will be elusive for the current group as well.

Broncos backs figure to make up some of those touches in the passing game -- Booker led the group with 38 catches last season -- and there is a potential wrinkle that could liven things up as well. Former coach Mike Shanahan called it "Rockets" when the team used two front-line ball carriers in the backfield at the same time. That is something that would fit the smaller, quicker Lindsay to be paired with the 238-pound Freeman.

"[Freeman] is obviously a lot different than Phillip, and I think when you can have different backs that bring different styles that sometimes can help you," Fangio said. "One guy is a small, quick, fast guy and the other guy's got a little more pop to him. That changeup can be effective."

The bottom line is Modkins has put them all on notice that there will be no guarantees about carries, but the number of those carries certainly won't go up if they all don't make the most of every one.

"There has to be a trust, they have to trust me, that we will put them in the best situation," Modkins said. "It'a a bonus if they like each other, but in the end that have to be a pro about it and be in it for each other."