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How Royce Freeman is taking advantage of his opportunities with the Broncos

Henry Chisholm Avatar
August 15, 2018

Halfway through the second quarter of the Broncos’ loss to the Vikings, Denver faced a third down and a 17-point deficit. Needing three yards, Bill Musgrave called for a read option.

Royce Freeman lined up alongside Paxton Lynch in the shotgun at the 23-yard line, with three receivers split out to the left and a tight end split to the right. When the ball was snapped, the defensive end on the right side of the line was left unblocked and allowed to choose whether to cut off Lynch or Freeman. He ran upfield, preventing Lynch from getting outside while leaving the right side of the line unguarded.

But that running lane wasn’t Freeman’s only option. The offensive line collapsed the Vikings’ defensive front and sealed the edges, leaving one linebacker to choose whether to crash left or right. Freeman drifted to the left, forcing the linebacker to commit, then flipped his hips and cut back to the right where daylight waited for him.

When a safety broke down in front of him seven yards later, Freeman chopped his feet and cut to the right again, netting a half-step of separation before using tight end Matt LaCosse—who was mid-block—as a screen, gaining the leverage he needed to run down the sideline and into the end zone.

“I just went through my reads,” Freeman said after the game. “The line did a great job of walling off and I got to the second level so I was just trying to make something happen and you know I ended up doing so and got in the end zone.”

The battle for the Broncos’ starting running back job is far from over, but Freeman made the most of his opportunities on Saturday and had—arguably—the best day of the Broncos’ runners. The 22-year-old showed exceptional physical tools and the vision to take advantage of them.

Freeman only carried the ball four times, but he made the most of every touch. Outside of the 23-yard touchdown, Freeman averaged five yards per carry. He also contributed in pass protection, often the toughest part of the game for a young running back to grasp.

“Royce did a really good job of peeling backside for a blitzing safety,” Case Keenum said Saturday night. “When backs know what’s going on, plus they can run the ball, it really helps.”

Freeman, who the Broncos drafted in the third round, is gaining national attention as a potential break-out performer due to the performance of recent mid-round draft picks at his position and the lack of experience in the Broncos’ running back room.

Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara each gained over 1,500 yards from scrimmage as rookies, and Tarik Cohen, Samaje Perine and Jamaal Williams each gained at least 700. All five were drafted in the third round or later in 2017. Devontae Booker, who was listed as the starting running back when the Broncos released their first depth chart last week, only totaled 574.

“We’ll see,” Vance Joseph said after the game when asked if Freeman looks like the starter. “It’s still early. He had a nice touchdown run.”

Freeman’s build inspires even more hype. As a four-year starter at Oregon, the 6-foot-tall back took a beating, carrying the ball nearly 1000 times in 51 career games. His injury history is fairly clean, possibly because the coaching staff asked him to bulk up to nearly 240 pounds late in his career.

In his super-productive sophomore season, Freeman weighed under 230 pounds, averaged 6.5 yards per carry and amassed nearly 2200 yards from scrimmage. He was named first-team All-Pac 12 ahead of Paul Perkins, Christian McCaffrey, Kalen Ballage and then-Utah running back Devontae Booker.

While Freeman’s production dipped late in his career, he still managed to become the Pac-12’s all-time leading touchdown scorer and ranks second on the rushing yards and yards from scrimmage charts. Now he says he’s down to 225 pounds.

“I think he might be better than people are going to give him credit for,” an anonymous AFC personnel director told NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein before the draft. “He was hurt all of last year, and they (Oregon) changed up the run scheme which kept him between the tackles. With better blocking in front of him, I’m not so sure that he’s not still that same kid we saw as a sophomore.”

But hype isn’t going to win Freeman the starting job. The Broncos’ running backs room is full of young talent. Coaches have mentioned De’Angelo Henderson’s name quickly when asked about their top backfield performers and they trust Booker’s consistency. Even undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay flashed big-play ability in his first contest, potentially carving out snaps for himself once the regular season starts.

“That is just the competitive nature of the backfield,” Freeman said Saturday. “You know, iron sharpens iron, as they say. We push each other in the film room and on the practice field. We try to apply everything out on the field.”

It’s tough for running backs, especially big backs, to make a name for themselves in training camp. When defenses aren’t allowed to bring ball carriers to the ground, runners don’t have opportunities to break tackles. That means the Broncos’ running back battle will be decided in the preseason. Through one game Freeman seems to have the lead, but his work isn’t done yet.

“Not much has changed,” Joseph said of his running back depth chart on Monday. “It’s still fluid. Guys are still competing. I thought Royce [Freeman] did some really good things. I thought Book [Devontae Booker] did some good things, [No.] 2 [Phillip Lindsay] did some really good things, David [Williams] played well on special teams, even De’Angelo [Henderson] made some plays. It’s still tight there. It’s still fluid, but obviously, Book and Royce are going to be our lead guys again this Saturday.”

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