2019 RB Outlook: AFC West

For 8 consecutive weeks this Spring/Summer I will be going division by division and evaluating the RB corps of each team. I’ll be assessing both the overall talent and depth that each team has at the position, while taking into account whether they use a workhorse back as their primary weapon or if they use a committee of backs to get the job done. This week’s featured division will be the AFC West.

DENVER BRONCOS: Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, Khalfani Muhammad, Devontae Jackson

Going into the 2018 season most assumed that rookie 3rd round pick Royce Freeman would be the team’s breakout player and lead back in the offense. But as it turns out, it was a different rookie that burst onto the scene for the Broncos: Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay might have gone undrafted but that didn’t stop him from emerging as one of the top young runners in the league. Nicknamed the “Tasmanian Devil”, he looks like a non-stop ball of energy when he has the ball in his hands, and he has elite level explosiveness. He absolutely kills pursuit angles. But he’s not just gifted athletically; he understands the nuances of being a runner and possesses great vision when running between the tackles, not falling into the tendency of bouncing everything outside. And even though he’s a shorter RB he still runs tough and plays strong for his size. I would like to see him improve his receiving ability as that would help take his game to the next level and put him in the conversation with the elite running backs in the league.

Freeman might have been outshined by Lindsay last season, but he’s still no slouch. He ran very well for the Broncos in the first half of the season before his ankle injury against the Cardinals in Week 7 hindered his effectiveness the rest of the year. With him being fully healthy heading into training camp it’s likely that he returns to form and provides the offense with a good complementary runner to Lindsay once again. Freeman is a big, thickly built back that uses good vision and a low center of gravity when running. He may not standout as a great athlete, but he still is capable of making cuts and jukes to get where he’s going and avoid defenders effectively.

Devontae Booker will remain as the 3rd RB on the depth chart. Because he’s the better receiver out of the 3 he’ll likely be able to keep his role as the pass-catching and 3rd down RB in the offense. However, If Lindsay can improve in this area then that could make Booker expendable. He’s had opportunities in the past to establish himself as the team’s lead RB, and although he wasn’t able to meet the expectations that were put on him at the time, he finally started to play well in 2018. He provides the team with a reliable and versatile backup.

Khalfani Muhammad and Devontae Jackson are both smaller scatback type players who will be competing with each other, and maybe even Booker, for a roster spot.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Damien Williams, Carlos Hyde, Darwin Thompson, Darrel Williams, Marcus Marshall, Josh Caldwell

Due to the incident surrounding Kareem Hunt in 2018, the Chiefs released him late in the season and handed over the reins to Damien Williams. Overall, he may not have been or be the same caliber of player that Hunt was, but he did play very well since taking over and produced some very good numbers. He doesn’t have any elite traits in his skillset, but he does have great speed and good hands, which are traits that fit in well with Andy Reid’s system. If Williams can prove he can carry a full workload over the course of a full season, he should continue to excel in this offense. That could be a big “if” though, considering Williams has never done it so far in his career.

With Spencer Ware leaving in free agency the Chiefs brought in Carlos Hyde to take his place. I considered Hyde an underrated runner during his time in San Francisco, but after being the odd man out in Cleveland and then struggling to get anything going in Jacksonville we’re getting to the point where Hyde’s losing out on opportunities to showcase his talent. Kansas City may prove to be his last chance to carve out a significant role before he hits the downturn of his career. He’ll start the season as the backup, but it’s no sure thing that Williams will hold up as the starter the whole year. Hyde isn’t just strong and powerful, but he’s a better receiver than most give him credit for.

The Chiefs also added scatback Darwin Thompson in the 6th round of this past NFL Draft. Thompson doesn’t have good vision or even the burst you’d like to see from players of his mold, but he does have good agility and cutting ability. He also has better contact balance than you’d expect. Thompson could add value as a returner and be used situationally as a weapon in space.

The 4th spot will come down to Darrel Williams, Marcus Marshall, and Josh Caldwell, with the advantage leaning toward Williams.

Losing an elite talent like Hunt has required the Chiefs to adjust quickly. Hunt is a special talent that was a true difference maker for this offense and none of the current running backs on the team are that, including Williams who by all means is a good RB in his own right. However, both Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes should be able to get the absolute most out of this backfield, and that could be just enough for the team to be successful once again in 2019.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Detrez Newsome, Troymaine Pope

News broke recently that Melvin Gordon wants either an extension from the Chargers or to be traded. It remains to be seen if the Chargers are willing to commit long-term to their oft-injured star RB, or more specifically how much they’re willing to commit. But it can’t be denied that Gordon is one of the most dangerous running backs in the league when he’s on the field, not only as a runner but as a receiver too. Gordon is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball and can also run in short-yardage. There aren’t many others in the league that are as complete of a running back as him.

The good news is that the team does have some talent behind Gordon if they must go forward without him. Austin Ekeler is the first guy worth mentioning. He had a breakout season in 2018, running for 554 yards and 3 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and catching 39 passes for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a dangerous scatback because he’s not only quick and elusive but he’s also very strong and can lower his shoulder into defenders with surprising power. It remains to be seen if Ekeler is capable of carrying the workload of a lead back, but even if he isn’t, he’s still one of the more underrated weapons in this offense.

The real interesting name here should Gordon be absent is Justin Jackson. Jackson was one of my late round sleepers in the 2018 Draft, and he was selected in the 7th round by the Chargers. His measurables (height, weight, wingspan, hand size) and lack of strength are concerning and are part of why he fell so far in the draft. He has a lanky build for a RB that makes you question if he would be able to withstand the constant punishment of the position. But what he does have is outstanding agility and elusiveness to go with solid skills as a receiver. Even though he doesn’t have the ideal muscle mass to push piles or fall forward on contact, he does move well in tight spaces and knows how to get skinny through the hole. If paired with Ekeler he has the potential to produce well enough and contribute.

Jackson isn’t the only RB heading into his sophomore season that should be returning. Detrez Newsome was an undrafted free agent that impressed the coaching staff enough during the 2018 preseason to earn a roster spot. Unlike Jackson, Newsome is a shorter and more compact player that has a physical running style and surprising explosiveness. He also is a capable return man on special teams.

Troymaine Pope is an undrafted free agent from the 2019 draft class that will try to earn a roster spot over Newsome.

The Chargers are in a tough predicament right now as they mull over Gordon’s contract situation. None of the other running backs on the roster are as good of a player as Gordon, and that really can’t be argued. There are some very high expectations for the Chargers this season, and not having him available would be a significant loss. However, in the event that they don’t, Ekeler, Jackson, and Newsome are far from bad options and would make a decent committee.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Chris Warren, Doug Martin

Rumor has it that when the Eagles traded up in the 1st round to the 22nd overall pick, Raiders Head Coach John Gruden got so heated and went into a bit of a tantrum in the war room because he thought the Eagles were about to select Josh Jacobs. That ended up not being the case though as the Eagles selected Andre Dillard, allowing Gruden and company to grab Jacobs at 24th overall. Jacobs was my RB1 in this year’s draft class, and even though he didn’t get a full workload of carries at Alabama he displayed elite skills and talent whenever his opportunities did come. He’s going to immediately be the lead RB for the Raiders.

Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington both joined the Raiders in 2016, and oddly enough both are similar types of players and have filled the “change-of-pace” role for the team simultaneously and productively. They’re both shorter and stockier runners whose games thrive on being dynamic weapons. However, Richard has proven to have an advantage when it comes to the passing game as a receiver. He was the team’s 3rd leading receiver in 2018 with 607 receiving yards, and at the same time averaged 4.7 yards per carry on the ground. Richard figures to keep his role for the most part, but Washington remains a talented player in his own right. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets traded to a team in need of a player of his talents.

Chris Warren was an undrafted free agent from last season who garnered a lot of excitement after his exceptional preseason. Unfortunately, he ended up getting injured and lost for the year before being able to take the field in a regular season game. He’s a big power back, the type that John Gruden loves using. If he’s healthy and picks up right where he left off, it’s going to be difficult to keep him from the final 53-man roster.

The veteran Doug Martin returns for his second season in Oakland, and even though he showed last year that he still has a little bit left to offer, it’s a bit difficult to see what his role is going to be in this backfield if the rest of the guys remain on the team.

The Raiders have a very deep and diverse RB Corps. Jacobs is an all-around back and will be the lead guy, Richard and Washington are the dynamic weapons that can be used multiple ways, Warren will provide short-yardage production, and Martin is a reliable veteran runner who can fill in when needed, should he be retained. They’re definitely a group to keep an eye on.