NFL Underrated Series: Running Back Edition
Updated: Jan 13
By James Pike.
We are now officially in December, which means two things. The world prepares to enjoy some quality time with their families over the Christmas period. Presents will be exchanged, parties will be had (restricted to three households of course), drinks will be consumed, and everyone will make the most of it to try and put what has been one of the worst years in human history behind us.
It also means that the NFL season is officially in the home stretch. With only four weeks remaining in the 2020 season, this is when things start to get serious as teams start to ramp up the intensity going into their final slate of games in hopes of securing a playoff berth. Those currently slated to continue their season into January are doing everything in their power to punch their playoff ticket. While teams on the outside looking in attempt to put together a winning streak that forces them into the conversation.
However, for some teams now is a time for reflection and to look further ahead. Certain franchises now have the opportunity to start putting together plans for the 2021 offseason and beyond. They will start to rest veteran players in order to give younger members of their squad a chance to show what they can do. Their fans have suffered all season long up until this point, but with a bit of luck a youngster can step into the line-up and make an impact. Giving supporters hope of a brighter tomorrow.
This is a time for coaches to take a look at their roster more objectively and focus on developing talent, rather than allowing older players to pad their stats heading into the offseason. For certain players in the league, these late season reps couldn’t be more important. Players heading into free agency have the chance to showcase their talents to potential suitors when the NFL Free Agency window opens on March 17th.
Players currently in a bad situation have the chance at freedom, moreover they have the chance to join an organisation that will appreciate their ability and give them more of a featured role, and for our most underrated running back in the league: this could be exactly what he needs. A change of scenery.
NFL Most Underrated: Running Back
Phillip Lindsay joined the Denver Broncos in 2018 as an undrafted rookie free agent. He walked into training camp with an awful lot to prove, as most undrafted free agents have to do. Lindsay made an immediate impact during the preseason and earned his place on the Broncos final roster heading into the 2018 season.
Going into the first game of the season he was the third string running back on the depth chart with a mountain to climb to get even a chance at some playing time. Nevertheless, Lindsay continued to impress the Broncos with his relentless play. The 5’8” former Colorado Buffaloes standout earned every minute of playing time in his rookie season, and by the end of the year he was their first choice at the running back position. He was one of the very few standouts from a disappointing season in Denver and established himself as a player to watch going forward.
Despite being in a committee in his first tilt in the league, he managed to post extremely impressive numbers: 1,037 rushing yards in just 15 games (only eight of which he started) for an average of 5.4 yards per carry, ten total touchdowns whilst also adding 241 receiving yards on 35 receptions. It appeared as though after his incredibly impressive rookie season that big things were round the corner for the former Buffaloes star. However, things seemed to stagnate a little in year two.
Lindsay was still able to surpass 1,000 yards for his second straight season with the Broncos, but he found himself splitting time with Royce Freeman once again, and in year two it appeared as though Freeman was being given more opportunities than he had the previous season.
Much of the goal line work was handed over to the larger Freeman, which isn’t completely uncommon in the NFL, as most teams now operate a system where they have a big back for short yardage and goal line situations. However, with a player who has the sheer talent of Phillip Lindsay on the team, it made little sense for him to be relinquishing carries to a player who despite having his uses, simply isn’t as good as he is.
Despite a down year compared to his debut campaign, the Colorado native was still the clear number one back in town when the 2019 campaign came to an end. Things were seemingly looking up in Denver as well, as then rookie quarterback Drew Lock came into the line-up towards the end of the season and was impressive. The Broncos defense, although not as dominant as in their title contending years was still not to be taken lightly and hopefully with further reinforcements arriving in the off season, things were looking up for Denver and Lindsay in 2020.
Competition in the backfield
However, John Elway had other plans for the Broncos backfield as Denver signed former Chargers star Melvin Gordon to a two-year, $16,000,000 contract during free agency last spring. At the time this was seen as a bold move by the Broncos organisation, being that Gordon had a pretty rocky relationship with his previous team. Gordon left Los Angeles as they were reluctant to hand him the massive contract he was seeking. After a stellar couple of seasons which saw him become not just a dominant runner, but a playmaker in the passing game; Gordon rightly wanted to cash in on this outstanding production with a big-time contract. Especially after former Steelers tail back Le’Veon Bell received a huge contract from the New York Jets despite taking a year off.
The Chargers let Gordon walk, and their loss was Denver’s gain as they quickly snatched him up. This was seen as a positive step in the right direction for the Broncos, as they had potentially found their franchise quarterback in Drew Lock. This would give the youngster an elite ground game that would help to bail him out when things were going tough, as no matter how talented a second-year quarterback might be, there will always be growing pains.
Despite this being a great move for Denver, it had the opposite effect on Lindsay. Prior to Gordon signing Lindsay was splitting time with Freeman even though he was clearly the better back. Now he had to share his reps with a former two-time Pro Bowler in the back field.
To make matters worse; in the very first game of the year in 2020 Lindsay went down with a toe injury during the team’s season opener against the Tennessee Titans. This essentially handed the lead role in the backfield to Gordon who has quietly had a very solid debut season in Mile High. Lindsay did return to action in the team’s week six upset over the Patriots and seemingly wasn’t hampered by the injury as he ran the ball 23 times for 103 yards.
Following up from his impressive performance in Foxboro; number 30 showcased his talents in the team’s next two games against the Chiefs and Chargers respectively, but since then his season has been a little hit and miss. Splitting time with Gordon as well as a couple niggling injuries has put a crutch on Lindsay’s production throughout the entirety of the 2020 season.
This has been Lindsay’s least productive season of his young NFL career to date, and with the Broncos currently floundering near the bottom of the AFC West alongside (ironically) Gordon’s former team the Chargers, this season appears to be a write off for the former three-time Super Bowl champions. To make matters worse: Lock appears to have taken a dramatic downswing in his sophomore season and no longer looks like the long-term answer for the team at quarterback. Putting it simply, 2020 has been a mess for the Broncos.
Prize free agent in 2021?
So, what now? What does the future hold for Lindsay in Colorado? The team is still struggling through a long term rebuild, and without some serious acquisition of talent during the off season, they aren’t going to be challenging Kansas City’s dominance at the top of the division. Does this mean that Lindsay should potentially weigh up his options during the off season and find a new home in free agency?
Well, not quite. Phillip is a Denver native as I mentioned earlier and has probably spent his entire life dreaming about putting on the famous orange and blue uniform for the Broncos.
I highly doubt that he is simply going to walk away into pastures new. He does have the talent to jump straight to the top of the depth chart on numerous other NFL teams who are desperate for a top class running back. In my opinion Lindsay should seriously consider some of the offers that might come his way during the offseason.
Although the Broncos clearly think highly of the third year back, I highly doubt they will ever give him the starring role in the backfield, especially after they invested so heavily in Gordon the previous year. All this despite the fact that during the times he has been given the opportunity in 2020 Lindsay has shown that he may be the more talented of the two.
Up until Gordon’s recent effort against the Chiefs which saw him rush for 131 yards on 15 carries, Lindsay had a better yards per carry average than Gordon on the season when he was healthy. Now Gordon is clearly the better option catching the ball out of the backfield, but Lindsay has shown in the past that he is more than capable of being a factor in the passing game too. He has all the tools to potentially be the featured option for this team, but Vic Fangio doesn’t seem to trust the former Buffaloes alumni to be the third down back.
I wholeheartedly believe that he will return to the organisation during the offseason next year. He is Denver through and through, and I expect that he will probably take less money than he could have made elsewhere to stay with the Broncos for 2021 and beyond. But make no mistake about it, if Lindsay were to try his luck with another team; he would once again prove himself as being one of the best backs in the entire league.
Who do you believe is the most underrated tail back in the NFL? Follow me on Twitter @JamesPike1702 and let me know what you think! Also follow @GridironXtra for all your latest NFL and 2021 NFL Draft news.