The Denver Broncos surprisingly didn't take any running backs in the 2023 NFL Draft, but they did find a diamond in the rough in the undrafted free agent frenzy. Former Youngstown State star Jaleel McLaughlin, the NCAA's all-time leading rusher, has somewhat unsurprisingly become a rookie standout for the Broncos despite being undrafted, undersized, and clearly overlooked.
McLaughlin made an impression at OTAs with his explosiveness, which serves as a stark contrast to the rest of the Denver Broncos running back group. Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine are not necessarily plodders, but they are bigger backs who make their hay creating yardage after contact. McLaughlin doesn't exactly go down on first contact, but his game is predicated on burst, quickness, and elusiveness.
And it has been a breath of fresh air this season when he's at his best.
Although McLaughlin did hit a bit of a rookie "wall" in 2023, I think there's no question he's entrenched himself as a key part of the offense going forward. According to Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton, the "vision" for McLaughlin is continually evolving, and he might be working his way up to the coveted "joker" role in Sean Payton's offense, a role previously held by players like Alvin Kamara, Darren Sproles, and Reggie Bush while Payton was in New Orleans.
"Our vision continues to grow a little bit because he continues to earn additional touches. The thing he and I spent a lot of time on, and his coach does a great job at it. Periodically, he’ll come up and he wants to expand his role as a receiver in that, if you will, ‘Joker’ category. He’s certainly eager. There’s a unique—not physicality, but I would say physicality, and a unique, hard-to-hit trait he has. You don’t see him take hard hits. He’s very sudden, and he’s earned those touches."- Sean Payton (via Broncos PR)
Something special happens when players rise to the occasion like McLaughlin has this year. You can say all you want that you have this "vision" for a player, but it's something entirely different to see it unfold on the field. And throughout the 2023 season, we've been seeing the vision for Jaleel McLaughlin unfold and even evolve.
As McLaughlin has become more and more comfortable, his opportunities have increased.
Somewhat quietly, McLaughlin eclipsed 100 touches in the Broncos' win over the Los Angeles Chargers, and he's had 21 total touches in the last two games.
And I think you can take it to the bank that he's going to get even more in the final week of the regular season against the Las Vegas Raiders. The Broncos need more playmakers to step up like McLaughlin has, and they need players with his skill set to have expanded roles within the offense. McLaughlin can hopefully continue to become a player who is not just effective with limited touches, but can maintain that level of effectiveness if the Broncos choose to substantially increase those touches.