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Why the Broncos finally named Royce “I like to punish people” Freeman the starter

Zac Stevens Avatar
September 3, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Less than 24 hours after the Paxton Lynch era came to an end, another era in Denver began.

On Monday, head coach Vance Joseph named rookie Royce Freeman the Denver Broncos’ starting running back, tying a bow on the team’s starting offensive unit.

“First of all, his maturity,” Joseph said, explaining why the rookie jumped veteran Devontae Booker on the depth chart. “He can carry the load from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. He was really good in pass pro. That’s your biggest worry about having a young halfback playing with a veteran quarterback is the pass pro issue.

This is typically the case with rookie running backs — running the ball, as running backs do, isn’t the issue. The issue, which holds many young backs from being a featured back, is their inability to protect their quarterback during pass plays.

Not with Royce.

“He’s been excellent, so has Phillip,” the head coach lauded about Freeman and undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay. “It’s really want-to, and it’s having a high football I.Q. and having a mindset to learn. It’s different every week as far as blitz packages… He’s shown the I.Q. and maturity to be a great pass-pro guy on third downs especially.

According to Freeman himself, excelling at pass protection was just about taking as many reps as he possibly could. Apparently, he’s taken enough, at least for now.

“It’s an honor,” Freeman said mellowly and humbly, acting as if he had been given a compliment, not the starting running back job of the Denver Broncos. “It’s an honor to be named a starter for this football team. It makes me want to work harder.”

The Royce Freeman the Broncos drafted in the third round is the same 6-foot, 229-pound player that he was at the University of Oregon. That’s precisely why the head coach wasn’t surprised Freeman earned the starting job.

“He was their main guy. He had a lot of work,” Joseph said, reflecting fondly back on Freeman’s college days. “He stayed healthy through the work, and that’s also an issue for most young backs — can they carry the load for 16 weeks and I think with his background and his body type he should be able to carry the load for 16 weeks.

Freeman becoming a starter is significant, too. Very significant, in fact.

With all of the talented 1,000-yard running backs’ Denver has seen over the years, the third-round pick is the first rookie back to start the Broncos’ season opener since Hall of Famer Terrell Davis did it in 1995.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned in that same category as Terrell Davis — a big name, someone with a great legacy and, like I said before, just an honor,” Freeman said on Monday after finding out the news.

In 1995, Davis casually ran for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in just 14 games. If Freeman carried that same pace for all 16 games, he would total 1,277 yards.

History would say that’s not crazy talk, either.

Last year, rookie third-round pick — same as Freeman this year — Kareem Hunt led the entire NFL with 1,327 rushing yards.

The year before, in 2016, it was rookie back Ezekiel Elliot who led the league with 1,631 yards with Todd Gurley amassing 1,106 yards in 2015.

His teammates wouldn’t put it past him to follow in those footsteps.

To the media, Royce is as humble and calm as they come, giving no indication he’s about to make his first career start in less than six days.

But behind the scenes, to his teammates, he describes his game with more candor.

“Royce is just a guy that wants to come in and work,” fellow rookie Courtland Sutton firmly stated. “I remember we went to some introduction thing and it was funny, they were asking Royce what his favorite run play was and he like, ‘The power.’”

Freeman was then asked, according to Sutton: “So what do you like to do?”

His response was as straight forward as it comes: “I like to punish people.”

“As soon as I heard him say that I was like, ‘We’re going to be good. We’re going to be fine,’” Sutton said grinning ear to ear. “He’s a guy that works his butt off every single day.

When the receivers are watching film with their coach, Zach Azzanni, the rookie head coach has specifically pointed out Freeman to the receivers as an example of how to approach practice, telling the guys, “Look how hard this guy’s going!”

The newest starter will be wearing a new number, too. No. 28.

“No specific reason. Just got a 20 number,” Freeman said, once again maintaining his cool demeanor. “I rocked 37 for preseason and switched it up.”

Donning 37, Freeman was clearly the best running back the team had.

New role, new number.

The Broncos just hope it’s the same Royce.


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