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NFL Draft

What Will Javonte Williams’ Impact Be In Crowded Broncos Backfield?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 18, 2021
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The Denver Broncos have a long history of finding and developing running backs. Back in 1995, then head coach Mike Shanahan found Terrell Davis in the sixth round. With the help of Shanahan’s innovating zone scheme, Davis wound up having a Hall of Fame career and is still the team’s all-time leading rusher. The team found another diamond in the rough with C.J. Anderson back in 2013 when he signed on as an undrafted free agent coming out of Cal. Anderson earned a significant role by his second season and was named a Pro Bowler for the 2014 season. In 2015, Anderson cemented his name in Broncos’ history as he was an integral piece to the Broncos' Super Bowl-winning team. Most recently, the Broncos discovered homegrown running back Phillip Lindsay, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and went on to be the first-ever undrafted offensive rookie to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.

It never really mattered where Denver found their backs, they usually ended up being pretty good. 

Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, the Broncos were a tough team to predict. The elephant in the room was, of course, the team’s quarterback situation and the possibility of them drafting a quarterback high to compete with or replace Drew Lock. Lock is coming off of an OK season in which he certainly showed some promise as a young, athletic passer, but there were far too many inconsistencies to make anyone in the organization feel strongly about his prospects as a sure-fire franchise quarterback. If the team opted to stick with Lock for another season, then the obvious positions of need would have included cornerback, offensive tackle, and linebacker. 

Denver elected to trade for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, essentially ensuring they would not be taking a quarterback with the ninth overall pick. Instead, they went with cornerback Patrick Surtain II, which wasn’t a big surprise as the team needed an additional corner opposite newly acquired free agent Kyle Fuller. What was a surprise, however, was the Broncos’ second-round pick and their decision to not only draft but trade up for North Carolina running back Javonte Williams. 

When discussing the Broncos’ team needs prior to the draft, running back was pretty far down the list. The team had Melvin Gordon returning after they signed him to a two-year deal last offseason, and they also went out and signed Mike Boone from the Minnesota Vikings, whom new general manager George Paton has familiarity with. So, with Gordon, Boone, and even Royce Freeman all in the fold for the Broncos, why would the team trade up for a running back with their second-round pick? Well, the answer is pretty simple; they absolutely loved him. 

Williams was widely considered to be in the top tier of running backs in this year’s draft and was right up there with Travis Etienne and Najee Harris as far as being the best back in this class. He has a unique blend of size, power, and explosiveness and was a big-play machine for the Tar Heels last season. As a junior, Williams forced 75 missed tackles, leading the country in that regard, which is mind-boggling when you consider that he split carries with the newly drafted New York Jet Michael Carter.

With running back needy teams such as the Miami Dolphins ahead of them in the second round, the Broncos were aggressive in securing Williams by executing a trade with the Atlanta Falcons to move up five spots and guarantee his service. When asked about why they traded up for Williams, Paton simply said, “he was one of our favorite players in the draft.”

There is little doubt that the team has high hopes and big plans for Williams, but with such a crowded backfield it's fair to question if that will come this season or in future seasons. From a pure talent perspective, Williams should easily be able to beat out Boone and Freeman to be the team’s second back behind Gordon, but as we all know coaches will often favor veterans in competitions. If Williams is able to earn the No. 2 job, there is certainly a path for significant year-one production.

The team allowed Lindsay to leave in free agency this offseason and that opens up the door for some extra touches for Williams. Prior to being placed on injured reserve due to nagging lower-body injuries, Lindsay rushed for 502 yards on 118 carries and one touchdown. Gordon ran for 986 rushing yards on 215 carries and nine touchdowns. Based on these carry splits, I can easily see a scenario where Williams earns around 150 or so carries as he is a superior talent compared to Lindsay and Lindsay would've had more if he hadn’t missed five games throughout the season.

The interesting thing regarding the Broncos’ backfield when trying to forecast Williams' year-one impact is understanding the skill sets of Gordon, Williams, and Boone. Both Gordon and Williams have excellent size, burst, and straight-line speed and are best suited running inside and outside zone on early downs. While both Gordon and Williams are more than serviceable on third downs and in passing situations, I wouldn’t call receiving out of the backfield a strength for either player. Boone on the other hand has shown flashes of being a natural receiving back, and given his size and speed it’s easy to project him as the team’s third-down back. With Gordon and Williams having redundant skill sets, I expect to see close to a 60-40 split on early-down work while the two concede snaps to Boone on third down. 

Running back may not have been a primary need in the short term for the Broncos, but smart general managers always look at team building two to three years out. Gordon is set to be a free agent after this season and the drafting of Williams all but guarantees he will not return after this year. Williams will be given the opportunity to be the next great Broncos back and I believe the talent is there for Williams to make an immediate impact in his rookie season. 

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