ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When running back Phillip Lindsay reported to the Denver Broncos on Tuesday, cameras were ready to catch a glimpse of the team's leading rusher the past two seasons before he began the check-in procedure.
Lindsay flexed as he passed by, showing off his offseason work, and he might need every bit of that upper body strength to tug, scratch and claw for carries this season.
Lindsay will compete with Melvin Gordon in the backfield after the Broncos signed Gordon to a two-year, $16 million deal this offseason. How the Broncos plan to divvy up the work between Lindsay and Gordon will be one of the hottest topics this side of quarterback Drew Lock during training camp.
Currently, ESPN's 2020 running back fantasy rankings place Gordon (No. 19 RB) 22 spots ahead of Lindsay (No. 41 RB).
From president of football operations/general manager John Elway to coach Vic Fangio to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the phrase "you need two good backs" has been repeated over and over. But the details of how the work will be split up remain to be seen. One thing is certain: This is a work very much in progress.
"The fact that we have two running backs now that can be very explosive with the ball in their hands, whether you throw it or run it, I think is a good thing," Shurmur said earlier this offseason. "I really do think you need more than one running back. ... We're going to try to utilize both ... and try to utilize their skills."
Unless the Broncos plan to run the ball at least 500 times -- something they haven't done since the Tim Tebow-option offense season of 2011 (546 carries) -- it is exceedingly unlikely that Lindsay will reach the 225 carries he had last season. If Lindsay and Gordon both stay healthy, Lindsay getting to the 192 carries he had as a rookie in 2018 is also a stretch.
Gordon didn't play in the Chargers' first four games last season because of a contract holdout, but he finished with 162 carries to go with 55 targets (42 receptions) in the passing game. His backfield teammate, Austin Ekeler, finished with 132 carries to go with a whopping 108 targets (92 receptions) in the passing game.
That was in a Chargers offense that ran the ball 366 times overall and was 10th in the league in pass attempts (597). The Broncos, unless they find themselves trailing in several games, aren't expected to unleash Lock on a pace anything close to 590 pass attempts. As a point of reference, Peyton Manning topped 590 pass attempts in two of his four seasons with the Broncos.
But $16 million is $16 million, and the Broncos didn't sign Gordon to have him standing near the bench. They like his potential as a pass-catcher -- he has four seasons with at least 40 receptions and two with at least 50 -- and that is expected to push his snap count ahead of Lindsay's.
Shurmur has used the phrase "full runner" to describe the necessity for a running back to contribute as a receiver. Shurmur has promised to use both backs plenty, including at the same time.
If both backs top 160 carries and the Broncos use Lock as well as a fleet group of receivers the way they hope to, it will mean the Broncos had the ball more than they have in recent seasons. They will have put together drives, and their defense will have forced plenty of punts.
The last time the Broncos had two backs each top 150 carries was in 2015 -- Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson -- when Manning missed seven starts because of a foot injury. The last time the Broncos had two backs each top 160 carries was 2005 -- Mike Anderson (239) and Tatum Bell (173) -- and the team ran it 542 times that season -- or 133 more times than in 2019.
Gordon has said, "We can be a great one-two punch," and the Broncos certainly believed that when they signed him. But how many punches the two will get will hinge on just how much the Broncos can rev up a young offense that could average 24 years old.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, they've had limited work in training camp and will have no preseason games to figure things out. As a result, Elway said Tuesday that the Broncos could find themselves leaning on the team's defense early.
"I don't think we can expect with no offseason for us to come out and be hitting on all cylinders," he said. "With our young team, that doesn't help us. I was hoping for a couple preseason games, just because we are so young on the offensive side, to get to see somebody else. We're going to have to deal with it. Today's world is adjusting, so we'll adjust to that. The mature kids will come in and do everything they can to get up to speed, but again, they're going to be young guys without an offseason program."