Broncos: How high is running back on the offseason priority list?

Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Draft option Najee Harris. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Draft option Najee Harris. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos seemingly had one of the best situations at the running back positions in the entire NFL going into the 2020 season.

Even though some fans opposed the move on principle, the team signed free agent Melvin Gordon and added him to the mix with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Lindsay, of course, was coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Lindsay struggled through injuries to play in just 11 games, and with his limitations on third down, Gordon became the Broncos‘ number one running back in 2020.

In 15 games, Gordon had over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns (9 rushing, 1 receiving). As solid as Gordon was throughout the 2020 season, questions remain heading into the 2021 offseason at the running back position as a whole.

Gordon is entering the second and final year of his two-year pact with the Denver Broncos. A DUI during the 2020 season (which Gordon is pleading not guilty to) could cost Gordon three games from the NFL in the form of a suspension, and more drastically it could cost him the guarantees in his contract which the Broncos could void if he’s convicted, and move on from him altogether.

Phillip Lindsay is a restricted free agent. In order for the Broncos to keep Lindsay around for 2021, they would have to give him a restricted free agent tender offer that would prevent other teams from giving up the draft compensation required to sign him.

The Broncos could tender Lindsay at a second-round level, which is worth just over $3 million guaranteed for a one-year contract, and basically prevent other teams from trying to sign him altogether. I do not believe there is any team in the NFL that would surrender a second-round pick and what it would require in the form of a contract to get Lindsay out of Denver.

Even though it seems likely that both Lindsay and Gordon will be back for 2021, will the Broncos prioritize the running back position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

They could. Actually, they probably should.

The team’s running back of the “future” is probably not presently on the roster. The idea of adding a player like Gordon who could contribute on all three downs was the right line of thinking, but as with any free agent acquisition, there are inherent risks to giving players a bunch of money and potentially looking bad in hindsight.

The same is true of spending valuable draft capital on running backs, but the cost is far less than going after guys in free agency who already have a bunch of miles on them from their previous location.

Factoring in new general manager George Paton, running back may be getting a violent shove into the top couple of priorities for the 2021 offseason.

Looking back at the 14 years Paton spent helping Rick Spielman build the Minnesota Vikings, it’s clear that their best teams all had something in common: A tremendous running game.

The selection of Adrian Peterson with their top pick of the 2007 NFL Draft really ended up defining the Vikings for the better part of the next decade. Peterson played at an MVP level through the mid-late 2000s and the early 2010s. He has still been playing at a high level through the early 2020s, but Peterson is a freak of nature.

He carried the team offensively to the postseason four times and after Peterson left, the Vikings were able to steal Dalvin Cook in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Cook has been absolutely stellar since he joined the Vikings and obviously helped get the team back into postseason play in 2019 (and to a lesser degree 2017 when he was hurt early on).

The Broncos have plenty of needs defensively, of course, but a player in the 2021 NFL Draft like Alabama’s Najee Harris, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, or others in a pretty stacked class at the position could be bumped up the priority list.

Based on Paton’s history in Minnesota, the running back position is obviously a priority. The Broncos’ situation at running back is completely unsettled beyond the 2021 season and even for the 2021 season depending on what unfolds over the next couple of months.

Because of how much these backs have proven they can do for a football team, the Broncos might take a more long-term approach to the defense and continue to look at ways to upgrade the roster overall.

The Broncos also have to think about the right tackle position for the 2021 season and beyond, so that side of the ball is certainly not set, by any means.

Then there’s the whole matter of the quarterback position.

Bringing in a long-term running back might not be high on every fan’s priority list, but based on his history with the Vikings, it could be very high on George Paton’s.