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Can Sean Payton and the Denver Broncos run it back with Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine and Jaleel McLaughlin?
Welcome to State of the the Team, where we’ll take a look back at the 2023 Denver Broncos and take a peek at what could be in store in 2024.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll go position-by-position through the Broncos roster, and we’re starting with the running backs.
Let’s dig in.
Broncos Running Backs Under Contract
Javonte Williams, 23 — One year remaining on rookie contract. Missed majority of the 2022 season with an ACL tear. Played 16 games in 2023 and ran for 774 yards and three touchdowns with a career-worst 3.6 yards per carry average.
Samaje Perine, 28 — One year remaining on two-year contract. His 673 yards from scrimmage in 2023 were the second most of his career. Two-thirds of his production came as a receiver, marking the first time in his career he gained more yards through the air than on the ground.
Jaleel McLaughlin, 23 — Three years remaining on rookie contract. Started three games as an undrafted free agent. Ranked sixth among rookie running backs in scrimmage yards.
Tyler Badie, 23 — Two years remaining of team control. Sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2022. Joined the Broncos late in his rookie season. One of two touches was a 26-yard touchdown catch. Spent entire 2023 season on the Broncos’ practice squad.
Broncos Free Agent Running Backs
Michael Burton, 31 — The fullback was named a Pro Bowl alternate and a PFF All-Pro in his first season in Denver. He also served as a key special teams player.
Dwayne Washington, 29 — Joined the Broncos after a five-year stretch with the Saints. Began the season on the practice squad but was promoted to the active roster in October. Appeared in 13 games as a core special teams player. Played one snap of offense.
2023 Grade: C+
Sean Payton built an arsenal of running backs in 2023 and used them to their strengths.
Samaje Perine was one of the league’s top third-down backs, ranking sixth among NFL running backs in receiving yards.
Undrafted rookie Jaleel McLaughlin was the change-of-pace back who provided needed sparks at crucial times.
Javonte Williams led the way as the do-it-all lead back.
The Broncos were the only team in the NFL to have three running backs each produce 550 yards from scrimmage in 2023. The last Broncos trio to hit that mark was Tony Dorsett, Sammy Winder and Steve Sewell in 1988.
Unfortunately, the Broncos also finished without a 1,000-yard rusher for the fourth consecutive season. In the past four years, the NFL has had 44 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and 24 teams have had a 1,000-yard rusher. Denver’s last 1,000-yard rusher was Phil Lindsay, in 2018 and 2019.
In 2023, Denver’s offensive hopes hinged on its running game. When the Broncos ran for less than 97 yards, they were 1-5. When they ran for 97 or more yards, they were 7-4.
The Broncos’ midseason surge, including the five-game winning streak, was largely powered by a dominant rushing attack on the offensive side of the ball. The poor start and finish coincided with a lack of rushing production.
The Broncos averaged 20% more rushing yards per game in October and November than in September, December and January.
What was the difference?
The Broncos opened the season emphasizing their passing game. Both of Russell Wilson’s 300-yard games came in the first three weeks of the season. When the Broncos realized their formula wasn’t working, they shifted to a run-first attack.
The dip at the end of the season is trickier to explain. My best guess is that loaded boxes, worn-out running backs, and more mistakes from the offensive line played a part.
The highs and lows combined to create the league’s No. 18 rushing attack. The Broncos finished 21st in rushing efficiency.
The Big Question: Who will Javonte Williams be in 2024?
Javonte Williams was the Broncos’ unquestioned lead back for most of the 2023 season. He took 48% of Denver’s carries and handled 34% of its offensive touches.
But his return on investment was disappointing. Williams averaged 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked 42nd out of 48 qualified rushers.The league-average mark for a running back was 4.2 yards per carry in 2023. Despite playing in 16 games, Williams only hit that mark twice in 2023. Williams didn’t hit four yards per carry in any of his final 10 games of the year.
Williams entered the season 11 months removed from a torn ACL, so he was unlikely to be the same player he was as a rookie in 2021, when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and led the NFL with 31 broken tackles, by Pro Football Reference’s count. Dropping an entire yard per carry and finishing with 10 broken tackles despite more carries was a surprise, though.
If Williams can return to form after another year of recovery, the Broncos will be in good shape at running back. At worst, they would have an above-average lead back to go with an above-average third-down back and an above-average change-of-pace back.
But if 2024 Williams looks more like 2023 Williams than 2021 Williams, the Broncos’ running game could have a low ceiling despite the investments they’ve made in their offensive line.
Salary Cap Implications
The Broncos enter the offseason $30 million over the salary cap, which means they’ll have to make drastic moves to reduce their spending, but the running back position is unlikely to be on the chopping block.
Javonte Williams and Jaleel McLaughlin are on team-friendly rookie contracts. The Broncos could save $3 million if they trade or release Samaje Perine, but that’s a minimal amount of money for an important piece of the Broncos’ offense.
The Broncos could use more pop on offense, but given their salary cap situation and the trio of backs already on the roster, they’re unlikely to make a move for a top-end runner.
However, a stud free agent like Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley or Josh Jacobs would provide an upgraded engine to power the Broncos’ offense. Plus, signing a Pro Bowl runner is much cheaper than signing a Pro Bowl-caliber player at any other position. If the Broncos want to add some horsepower to their offense, adding a running back might be the cheapest way to do so.
The most likely outcome is that the Broncos run it back with their top trio, giving Jaleel McLaughlin an expanded role if Javonte William’s legs don’t return.
They’ll still add a couple of backs. A veteran special teamer like Dwayne Washington would make sense.
Another undrafted back would also make sense. Not only did the Broncos sign McLaughlin as a college free agent in April, but they also brought in Emanuel Wilson out of Fort Valley State College. Denver chose McLaughlin over Wilson before training camp opened, and Wilson went to the Packers and earned a roster spot. He handled a dozen carries for the Packers during their playoff run.
Talented undrafted backs are out there. Since the Broncos only have six draft picks, college free agency is probably where Denver will do its shopping.