ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- One play last season did the most damage to Denver Broncos' run game: During a first-and-10 at the Las Vegas Raiders’ 25-yard line in the second half, Las Vegas defensive end Maxx Crosby tried to bring down Broncos running back Javonte Williams from behind. He ended up on Williams' back, Williams’ right leg buckled and the Broncos lost their RB1 for the season.
Williams continues his recovery from multiple ligament tears, which still puts uncertainty on the depth chart as well as in a new Sean Payton playbook.
“We have a long way to go,’’ general manager George Paton said at the league’s scouting combine last week. “I don’t know how many backs played [in 2022]. I look at our depth chart and we have, like, nine running backs. We obviously had a lot of injuries there … We do need to add at that position.’’
The Broncos will look to do that in a year with plenty of free agent running backs in free agency. They also just had an up-close look during the scouting combine at the running backs who will be available in April’s draft.
With Williams’ recovery still in progress, he'll remain a question mark in Payton's playbook. Running back Latavius Murray, who was signed off the New Orleans Saints practice squad and ended the season as the team’s leading rusher, believes there is a place for running backs in that offense as he was recruiting Payton to the Broncos weeks before the team had even interviewed Payton for the job.
Murray spent two previous seasons with the Saints -- 2019 and 2020 -- when Payton was the head coach and Murray has said Payton knows how to “build an offense that passes, scores and knows how to run too.’’
“I got a text right at the end of the season, (Murray) said, ‘man, we have to find a way to get you here -- me and my backfield teammate.’ When I heard that, I thought of running back. Then I thought of who else is in his backfield. I texted and said, ‘Who is your backfield teammate?’ He sent the No. 3 (quarterback Russell Wilson's number). It was Christmas time and I said, ‘Be careful what you’re asking Santa for.’ That was my response.’’
Williams won’t be a year removed from surgery to repair his knee until October, and even the most optimistic of recovery scenarios usually are almost a year for the severity of Williams’ injury and often longer. He has started jogging in portions of his rehab and Paton has said he’s “hopeful’’ and “thinks’’ Williams will be healthy by the start of the season, but the general manager added “we’ll have a plan if he isn’t.’’
Murray is a free agent and turned 33 in January. Mike Boone, who has had just 28 carries in his two seasons with the Broncos and finished this past season on injured reserve, is also a free agent. Chase Edmonds, who arrived in the Bradley Chubb trade, was under contract for 2023, but was released on March 10 saving 5.92 million in salary-cap space.
For his part, Murray said, “I’d love to be back."
Even with the Raiders placing the franchise player tag on Josh Jacobs, there are plenty of backs available in free agency, including the likes of Miles Sanders, who won’t turn 26 until May, and Ronald Jones, who also turns 26 in August. Others include Kareem Hunt, Raheem Mostert, Jamaal Williams and D’Onta Foreman.
The draft, too, is crowded. And while the Broncos don’t pick until the third round in April, there will be running backs worthy of a long look well into the draft’s third day.
“It's still a position that matters, I think, I’ve said, I ran a lot of inside zone, outside zone in Minnesota, and at the Shrine (Game) the Patriots (coaches) taught me some gap schemes so I'm pretty comfortable with all three,’’ said Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the No. 240 player according to Scouts Inc. He had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Gophers including 1,665 yards this past season.
“I can do what needs to be done,’’ he added.
In the end, Payton must decide the role of the run game in his offense. As he set Drew Brees loose for five 5,000-yard passing seasons with the Saints, Payton still found efficiency with, and a place for, the running game. He had three seasons with the Saints when his offense was among the top seven in the league in both rushing yards and passing yards.
That included the 2009 season when the Saints won the Super Bowl. Alvin Kamara was selected to the Pro Bowl four times in his four years under Payton.
“We’re always looking. I know it’s a deep free agent class (at running back),’’ Paton said. “It’s a deep draft class for running backs, so we’re always going to look to upgrade.’’