The Denver Broncos will scan over every 2020 free agent option, but will the running back position be a priority? Here are some players to watch.
The Denver Broncos ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing in 2019, and there are plenty of factors that played into their success -- or sometimes lack thereof -- in that phase of the offense.
First-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello seems to have done a masterful job of designing plays, but his play-calling at times didn't lead to the best sequencing, and the Broncos were inconsistent running the football for most of the season.
There were plenty of other factors at play here, including the inconsistent play of the offensive line, teams stacking the box and basically daring the Broncos to throw it every play, limiting what the running game could do, and a combination of those things together.
It's actually a wonder the Broncos were able to rank 20th in the league in rushing, all things considered.
With that said, how much does talent at the running back position play into things? Is this a position the Broncos are going to be looking at upgrading in the offseason?
While Phillip Lindsay further solidified his spot in the offense as a 1,000-yard rusher for the second straight season, Royce Freeman seemed to take a step back in his sophomore season in the running game (and a step forward in the passing game, somewhat), leaving the Broncos with questions at the position in 2020 about whether they have the best possible combination of backs.
While I believe Phillip Lindsay is part of the equation and solution moving forward, the Broncos have to look into any option to make the team better while factoring in cost, fit, NFL Draft alternatives, etc.
I think there's a perception out there that going the free agent route for running backs is just not a wise thing to do considering the shelf life of backs in the NFL as well as the quality of the backs coming out of the college ranks these days, but teams like the Ravens (Mark Ingram), Saints (Latavius Murray), and 49ers (Tevin Coleman) have shown the value of spending smart at the running back position.
The New York Jets threw a bunch of money at Le'Veon Bell, who was out of football for a year, and that move hasn't paid dividends yet, but there may be deeper issues there than just football.
The Broncos should keep an open mind with free agent running backs given their current roster as well as the players they could potentially pursue.
I want to take a look at a few guys who will be available, whether their price point matches where the Broncos are at, and if their skill set is a fit for what the Broncos really need at the position.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (age: 25)
The Tennessee Titans have made it to the second round of the playoffs with an upset win on the road against the New England Patriots, and Derrick Henry is a huge reason why.
Although Henry put up some duds in the 2019 season -- including against the Denver Broncos -- he still managed to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,540 yards and he paired it with 16 rushing touchdowns and a couple of receiving touchdowns.
Henry is an absolute beast at the position entering the prime years of his career.
At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry is going to look a lot more like Von Miller coming off the team plane than he is a traditional running back, but he runs with excellent vision, power, and speed.
He has developed a pretty well-rounded game as a runner and receiver, and with 28 rushing touchdowns and a 5.0 yard per carry average over his last 518 carries, he's established himself as the top prize at running back in the 2020 free agent class, and quite frankly the top offensive skill player overall.
I would say he's likely to get at least $13 million per season and probably more than that on average, and he may not get that from the Titans.
If I were the Titans, however, I would make Henry an offer he couldn't refuse.
If he makes it to the open market, I don't know that it would be the wisest move the Broncos could make to allocate so much of their free agency resources at a running back, especially when you figure Phillip Lindsay will factor into the team's plans for 2020 and beyond.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers (age: 26)
Melvin Gordon is a big-name player for the Los Angeles Chargers as a former first-round draft pick who has only somewhat lived up to expectations in the NFL.
After not scoring a single touchdown in his rookie season, Gordon has made up for it in a big way over the last four years with a total of 47 touchdowns (36 rushing, 11 receiving) and has been one of the top scoring threats in the NFL.
The big problem with Gordon?
On a per-play basis, he hasn't been much more effective over the course of his career than Royce Freeman over the last two seasons.
He averages 4.0 yards per carry in his career, thanks largely to the 5.1 yards per carry he averaged in 2018 which is an outlier for the other four years he's played in the NFL (3.5, 3.9, 3.9, 3.8).
Still, Gordon's work as a tandem back with Austin Ekeler and his effectiveness at putting the ball in the end zone could be intriguing to the Denver Broncos depending on what his asking price is.
Obviously, Gordon held out with the Chargers this past year, they did not succumb to his request, and they were probably right to do what they did. He's only rushed for 1,000 yards one time in his career and averages just 4.8 yards per offensive touch.
Gordon has speed and strength, for sure, but have we seen the peak of what he is at this point? Is he worth upwards of $10 million per season?
With what the Broncos currently have, I would take the field of free agents and the NFL Draft over paying Gordon as much money as he is looking for. If he were to come in at the price of $7 million per season?
That might pique my interest.
Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals (age: 26)
And now we've reached what I believe to be the best free agent fit for the Denver Broncos: Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake.
The Cardinals acquired Drake at the trade deadline this past season and used him exceptionally well, especially down the stretch of the season. With David Johnson dealing with injuries, Drake really became an effective lead back for Arizona and showed off his skills not only as a runner but as a receiver with Kyler Murray throwing him passes.
The former Alabama star had been a quiet stud for the Miami Dolphins and was really good with the Cardinals.
Over the course of his first four years in the NFL, Drake has averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per touch. In the last two seasons, he's scored 17 total touchdowns and caught 103 passes.
He's shown he can make big plays and be a reliable pass-catching weapon for an offense with multiple teams.
With his age (26 later in January) and production over the past two seasons, specifically, I think Drake could wind up being a Tevin Coleman-type of steal for some team in free agency and I hope it's the Denver Broncos.
His skillset pairs well with Phillip Lindsay and would give the Broncos a really deep backfield.
At the price of $5-6 million per season, I would sign Drake to a four-year deal and not think twice about it.