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Should the Broncos consider a big swing at running back this offseason?

Henry Chisholm Avatar
January 26, 2023

In less than two months, free agency will open and the Denver Broncos will decide where to blow their cash.

Linemen? Linbackers? A new safety?

Don’t be suprised if they go after a star running back. Bare with me.

Javonte Williams, the Broncos’ current top dog, is a worthy starting back but his knee injury is not a simple one.

In some ways, a torn ACL is no big deal anymore. Sit out for nine months and you’ll be good to go. But Williams also tore his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and damaged his posterior collateral ligament (PCL). That is not good.

A 2018 study of 50 NFL players with multiligament knee injuries in Sports Health found that from 2000-2016, players who tore both their ACL and MCL returned to the field on average in a little over 10 months. Recoveries from a torn ACL combined with a torn PCL or LCL took slightly more than 15 months. The scarier part is that while 43.5% of injured players in the first category returned to their previous form, only 18.5% of athletes in Williams’ category did.

The prognosis of a major knee injury has improved significantly since 2000 when the earliest injuries included in the set occurred. It’s safe to say that the numbers above are a cynical look at Williams’ situation. But Williams will probably take at least a year to recover from his injury, which occurred in early October, and there’s a strong chance he won’t look like himself, especially in his first year back.

On the flip side, sitting out the entire 2023 season or never again running like he did in his rookie season are both real possibilities.

Behind Williams, the Broncos have three backs who have appeared in NFL games on their roster.

  • Damarea Crockett, 25, who has carried the ball three times, all in the 2021 season, and is recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Tyler Badie, 22, who touched the ball twice as a rookie this season; a rush for no gain and a 24-yard touchdown catch in the season finale.
  • Chase Edmonds, 26, whom the Broncos traded for on deadline day. He provided 186 yards over five appearances, while missing a handful of games with injury. Denver is set to pay him $6 million this season, but could end his contract prior to the season and recoup all $6 million of cap space.

The Broncos could also re-sign Latavius Murray, who was the lead back for the second half of the 2022 season. But he turned 33 recently and age catches up to everybody eventually. He’d be a solid piece, but expecting starter-level production from a 33-year-old is a bad idea.

All of that is to say this: the Broncos are in need of a running back, and they could easily justify a major investment. Moving on from Edmonds could pay half of the bill.

As bad as 2022 was, Denver doesn’t have as many holes as you’d expect. They could use a couple of starting offensive linemen and another defensive back. If they wanted to add to the pass rush, they could. That would probably require trading away at least one or two of their outside linebackers, though.

Denver’s league-leading 23 players returning from injured reserve will fill most of the gaps we saw in 2022. That’s 10 more than the average NFL team. Denver had nearly $40 million more cap space tied up in players on injured reserve than the average team at the end of the season.

You could almost look at the players returning from injury as a second free-agent class.

We won’t dig too deep into the numbers, but the Broncos should have the option to give out a few contracts in the $10-15 million per year range, depending on how they choose to play their cards.

Over the past decade, the NFL world has decided that paying big money to running backs isn’t worth the money. They get hurt too easily. They age too quickly.

But because the league has refused to give top dollar to running backs, the market dynamics have changed significantly.

Two decades ago, in 2002, two running backs (Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin) made more money than the highest-paid receiver (Randy Moss). The franchise tag for running backs was 30% higher than the tag for wide receivers. Running backs were seen as more valuable than wide recivers.

A decade ago, two running backs earned $10 million per year, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson. Meanwhile, three wide receivers were making eight figures, Vincent Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. Essentially, running backs and wide receivers were valued evenly, and wide receivers passed running backs in value sometime around this point.

Now, in 2022, wide receivers are nearly twice as valuable as running backs. Davante Adams leads receivers with an average salary of $28 million. Christian McCaffrey leads running backs with $16 million per year. OverTheCap projects the franchise tag for wide receivers this season will be $19,762,000, and the tag for running backs will be $10,100,000.

If the Broncos go after the top man on the running back market, 25-year-old Saquon Barkley, his salary would probably fall somewhere around $14 million. He wants to be paid similarly to McCaffrey ($16 million) and the Giants have offered $12 million. I split the difference.

On a $14 million per year contract, Barkley would make less money than 27 wide receivers. He would slide in between Corey Davis and Robbie Anderson, and, in my opinion, would be much, much more valuable than either one of them.

My point here is that paying big money to running backs is a bad idea, but a $10-15 million per year contract hardly counts as big money in the NFL anymore. Running back salaries have grown slightly over the past decade but the salary cap has nearly doubled. High-end running backs are coming at a relative bargain, and the numbers bare that out.

Over the past four three years, nine different running backs have played on contracts that average $10 million per year. They’ve combined to play 23 seasons, over those three years.

On average, those running backs posted the following stat line: 1,027 rushing yards, 330 receiving yards, 11.5 touchdowns.

Those numbers don’t jump of the page at first look, but only three Broncos running backs have hit all of those marks (we’ll round down to 11 touchdowns) in the same season.

  • Knowshon Moreno in 2013.
  • Clinton Portis in 2002, when he won AP NFL Rookie of the Year.
  • Otis Armstrong in 1974, when he won the NFL rushing title, yards from scrimmage title and was a first-team All-Pro.

And, once again, that is the average production for a running back on a $10+ million contract over the past three seasons. Christian McCaffrey’s injury-plagued 2020 and 2021 campaigns are included. So is David Johnson’s disappointing Houston debut. Take all of the good years and all of the bad years, and those numbers are what you expect to get from a $10+ million per year running back. Not hope for. Expect.

If you get lucky and the running back doesn’t get hurt, the expectation would jump significantly. And that’s the gamble. And after a decade of market shifts, the payoff is more than worth the gamble.

Do those contracts result in team success? Largely, the answer to that question is yes.

Over the past three seasons, teams with a running back who made $10 million or more per year had a 203-180-1 record in regular-season games. This includes all games for those teams in those seasons, not just the games in which the big-money running back played. Again, the risk for injury is factored into the results.

Three teams with big-money running backs have appeared in AFC or NFC Championship Games in that timeframe. One team, the 2021 Bengals, appeared in a Super Bowl. Two more teams have a chance to add to that total this weekend, the 49ers and the Bengals.

Earlier this week, BetOnline opened betting on where Saquon Barkley will play next, if he doesn’t return to the Giants. As of Thursday, the Broncos are tied for the second-best odds with an implied probability of a 15% chance.

There’s good reason for Vegas to think the Broncos could go big-game hunting for backfield help. Their running backs room is full of question marks. They could pay half the contract by moving on from Chase Edmonds. They don’t have too many holes to fill; moreso their problem is a general lack of high-end offensive talent.

Denver’s justification would combine the obvious need for a starting-caliber running back with a need for help in the passing game as well. With Tim Patrick, Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy locked into contracts, Denver doesn’t have much room for a top-end receiver. If they were to, for example, jump into the bidding war for DeAndre Hopkins, one of those three would be pushed into the fourth wide receiver role.

A big-time running back could help subsidize the passing game. Barkley, for example, caught 91 passes as a rookie in 2018. The Broncos caught 345 total passes in 2022, with Jeudy’s 67 receptions leading the way.

Barkley isn’t the only option, though. The 2023 class of free-agent running backs is one of the deepest in recent memory. Barkley, Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Williams, Josh Jacobs, D’Onta Foreman, Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, David Montgomery, Tony Pollard, James Robinson and Rashaad Penny all have significant starting experience and none of them have turned 28 yet. All will be unrestricted free agents in March, and so will others who are older or have primarily been role players.

The Broncos could opt for a proven veteran back who will cost half as much as one of the big names, but a big swing is very much on the table. The amount of talent on the market should knock down prices even further than the last decade has. So will a deep draft class.

Regardless of how they handle free agency, the Broncos will almost certainly add another back through the draft. And before you say that they should find their starter there, remember that only first- and second-round backs have a strong history of being immediate starters.

Over the past four seasons, here’s how many running backs have run for at least 500 yards as a rookie, sorted by draft round:

1st round: 3 of 4 (75%)

2nd round: 8 of 10 (80%)

3rd round: 4 of 13 (31%)

4th round: 4 of 17 (24%)

5th round: 1 of 11 (9%)

6th round: 1 of 17 (6%)

7th round: 1 of 14 (7%)

Finding an immediate starter after the second round of the draft is possible, but it’s a gamble unlikely to pay off.

The gamble that is likely to pay off: taking a big swing at a running back in free agency.

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