Nobody was prepared for the undrafted, afro-rocking sensation from University of Colorado to burst onto the scene for the 2018 season. However, a year later, it is clear that Phillip Lindsay sits atop the depth chart for the Denver Broncos. The question is – can he replicate his historically good rookie season?
Even though he totaled 4,859 yards from scrimmage and found the endzone 39 times during his 4-year college career, he wasn’t even invited to the combine. Many were concerned that his size (5-foot-8-inches, 190 pounds) and athleticism wouldn’t translate to the NFL. He ended up going in the “8th round” of the 2018 draft, otherwise known as the undrafted free agency period. The Broncos were fortunate that Lindsay’s mom convinced him to stay close to home as he quickly became the second-best rookie running back behind Saquon Barkley. In 16 games, Lindsay finished with a team-leading 1,037 yards and was second in the league in yards per carry at 5.4. Many fantasy owners were actually expecting his rookie counterpart – Royce Freeman – to have a bigger impact. Lindsay’s strong season warranted him to become the first undrafted rookie to make the Pro Bowl, but he unfortunately couldn’t compete due to a wrist injury suffered in week 16. While many hoped the injury wouldn’t have long-term effects, it did require offseason surgery and has forced him to be a spectator for the early goings of OTAs.
Ultimately, Lindsay proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming year for the Broncos. However, the Broncos have cleaned house and received a face-lift during the offseason. They will no longer have Vance Joseph patrolling the sidelines, but instead 60-year-old first time head coach Vic Fangio. Along with Fangio, the Broncos have installed new offensive and defensive coordinators in Rich Scangarello and Ed Donatell respectively. They have also revamped the quarterback room by ending the Case Keenum experiment and moving on to 34-year-old Joe Flacco. Beyond that, they retooled the offensive line, including making Ja’Wuan James the highest paid right tackle in the NFL and hiring Mike Munchak. On paper, these all seem like moves that should benefit the Broncos and Lindsay’s 2019 campaign, but there are still some variables to consider.
For starters, Royce Freeman is still lurking behind Lindsay. Many fantasy owners were actually expecting Freeman to have a bigger impact in the 2018 season. He was the bright star in Oregon, an absolute workhorse in college, where he totaled 5,621 yards, 60 touchdowns, and an average of 5.9 yards per carry. He ranks 6th all time among NCAA Division 1 FBS career rushing yards and was one of the top RB prospects leading up to the draft. Denver took him in the 3rd round with the 71st pick.
At the time, he seemed to be the heir to a departing CJ Anderson, but Lindsay quickly shot to the top of the depth chart. However, Lindsay’s rise wasn’t necessarily due to poor play on Freeman’s part. With a lingering ankle injury, Freeman was only able to play in 14 games but still managed to gain 521 yards and score 5 times. Now Freeman is healthy while Lindsay continues to rehab his wrist. That means that Freeman is getting all 1st team reps and building chemistry with Flacco, which is critical at this point in the season. Freeman is a more prototypical 3-down back compared to Lindsay, and his size (6-foot, 238-pounds) is more likely to hold up over the grueling NFL season. Their styles are also very different. Freeman can use his body to run through tackles, while Lindsay relies more on his speed and elusiveness.
Ideally, they can complement each other throughout the season, but it will be a constant struggle to see who gets the bulk of the touches. Even last year, Lindsay wasn’t getting the volume expected for a 1,000-yard rusher. He never topped 20 rushing attempts in a game, and his 16 receiving yards aren’t very noteworthy. It should be noted that Devonte Booker, a former 4th round pick in 2016, is still on the roster, but he doesn’t seem likely to steal many carries from Freeman or Lindsay. The Broncos’ offense leaned on their rookie tandem RBs last season, as they combined for 82 percent of the team’s rushing attempts in 2018.
John Elway seems to be pleased with his young duo as well, stating “we feel really good about both of them. I think they’re both a good combination and a change of pace. The size difference that we have, we’re excited about the years that they had. We have big plans for Phillip, as well as Royce, to get them both involved in the passing game as well as the run game. I think that Phillip proved this year that he can run between the tackles, which he did very well. But we think he’s durable enough to play.” While they can coexist, it will be hard to deny Freeman touches in his sophomore season. I expect to see more Freeman, which will obviously hurt Lindsay’s stock.
Another important aspect is the new-look Denver Broncos. I alluded to it earlier, but the 2019 Broncos should be dramatically different than the past couple of years. Without Vance Joseph and his carousel of offensive coordinators, the offense should get a boost. New head coach Fangio isn’t offensive minded in any sense, but he has brought along Scangarello which looks to be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant offensive room.
Scangarello saw success in San Francisco as the QB coach learning under Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers had tough luck keeping quarterbacks healthy during the 2018 season, but Scangarello was able to adapt and help young players succeed throughout the season. In Denver, he will be working with a former Super Bowl MVP in Flacco, while also developing rookie Drew Lock. He has a lot on his plate, especially as a first-time coordinator, but he has potential weapons in Denver.
The WR room is young with Courtland Sutton and Daesean Hamilton. Hopefully, they will also feature a healthy Emmanuel Sanders, who is recovering from a torn Achilles. There is also rookie TE Noah Fant who should help spread the field vertically. Broncos fans are hoping that Scangarello can help mold Fant into the next George Kittle, who had an elite season in 2018. The Broncos also brought in offensive line mastermind, Mike Munchak to help bolster the front line. To go along with the Munchak hire, they also made Ja’Wuan James the highest paid right tackle via free agency and drafted versatile Dalton Risner in the 2nd round. These moves should bode well for the offense as a whole but could potentially lessen Lindsay’s impact.
Under Scangarello, the Broncos are expected to feature a Shanahan-esque zone running game. While this should benefit both Lindsay and Freeman, it will likely be more tailored to a bigger back like Freeman. I still expect Lindsay to use his vision and quick cuts to find open lanes for big runs, but it is a different scheme compared to what he has played in the past. His rehab is currently cutting into his ability to learn this new offense and get necessary reps. On the flip side. Scangarello and Flacco should also be able to stretch the field more, which could result in less attention on Lindsay.
Since Peyton Manning, the Broncos haven’t had a threat at the quarterback position. Defenses were able to zero in on Lindsay and the running game last year. Ideally, there will be less pressure on Lindsay to carry the offense this season. Flacco and the young weapons all need to make an immediate impact for the Broncos’ offense to see success. If the Joe Flacco trial run fails, then the Broncos will be back to square one with a rookie QB in Drew Lock and a predictable, run-heavy offense. Lindsay should benefit from a more balanced offense, which looks possible at this stage in the season. While OTAs have been promising, it will be interesting to see how the offense does against other NFL defenses.
Overall, Lindsay should have a productive year, but it will be difficult to replicate his rookie season success. Last season was simply historic. However, I do think he is more than just a flash in the pan, and should continue to be a solid NFL back. That said, with Freeman seeming to get more carries and a different offensive scheme, we will see a different Lindsay than last year. I see him more as a RB2/Flex option this year. It will be important to monitor his health and hope that he can fully recover from his offseason surgery. This season seems more contingent on the rest of the Broncos as well. If the moves made in the offseason don’t pan out, then it is possible that Lindsay gets bottled up by defenses as the Broncos’ only viable threat.