ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos running back depth chart has lacked just that since last season — depth.
If Javonte Williams returns from last season’s knee injury by the start of training camp and if Samaje Perine is ready to increase his workload, they’ll feel better about their situation. Or if one of the younger backs emerges in the offseason workouts.
“I was taught a long time ago, stack them up at that position,’’ said Broncos coach Sean Payton. “It’s a tough position in our league.”
The Broncos’ offseason moves have offered a glimpse into an intention to pump up the run game as part of offensive makeover for the league’s lowest-scoring team last season as tackle Mike McGlinchey, guard Ben Powers, blocking tight end Chris Manhertz and fullback Michael Burton were all among the free agency signings. A commitment big enough that McGlinchey (five years, $87.5 million) and Powers (four years, $51.5 million) signed two of the four largest contracts awarded in the league to offensive linemen who switched teams this offseason.
But Payton also cleared some of the uncertainty the Broncos have had around the position at the team’s rookie minicamp over the weekend. And he partially showed why the Broncos elected to pass on drafting any running backs with their five picks this year.
“I feel real good about our group of veterans that are here in the building,’’ Payton said. “ … Our current starter is doing extremely well. I would tell you we expect him to be ready for the start of training camp and that’s good news — [that’s] Javonte.’’
Payton went as far as to say if Williams’ progress continues at its current pace, the third-year running back should not have to open training camp designated as physically unable to perform (PUP) and would participate in practices from the start of camp.
General manager George Paton had limited optimism about Williams’ return early in the offseason and has also said “we’re always looking to upgrade’’ at the position. But Perine’s arrival — the Broncos signed him ahead of a long list of backs available in free agency — is also an indication the Broncos believe he is ready for more than he’s been asked to do in his previous five seasons with the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals.
The 27-year-old hasn’t carried the ball more than 95 times since his rookie year in 2017 and has had fewer than 65 carries in four of those seasons. But at 5-foot-11, 240 pounds, Payton said he envisions Perine as an “every-down back’’ who could both be the team’s No. 1 ballcarrier if Williams isn’t ready for the start of the season or a back who can play in any situation in any rotation the Broncos have.
Perine had 27 and 38 catches in the last two seasons, respectively, in the Bengals’ offense.
“We signed him because we knew he was durable, reliable, he played on first and second down, he played quite a bit on third down if you ever really look at the snaps from Cincinnati,’’ Payton said. “So we felt like we’ve got another solid runner, who’s … built in a strong way. There’s a lot of things he does well.’’
As it stands, however, the Broncos still need both Williams and Perine to be everything they hope since the rest of the current depth chart is filled with players who have limited resumes. Damarea Crockett is coming off a torn ACL from last August, Tyler Badie has one career carry in the NFL and former New Orleans Saints running back Tony Jones Jr. has 67 carries over three years.
One of the Broncos’ initial wave of undrafted rookies signed — Youngstown State’s Jaleel McLaughlin — was among the 15 rookie free agents the team signed in the days after the draft. McLaughlin, at 5-foot-8, 183 pounds, rushed for 1,588 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
“We’ve got a few we’re looking at at this camp,’’ Payton said of the rookies-only weekend.
Free agency wasn’t all that kind league-wide at the position with a long list of veterans still available, including the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, J.D. McKissic and former Saints running back Mark Ingram II, who played eight seasons for Payton if the Broncos still feel the need to add in the coming months. They’ve also brought in XFL running back Jacques Patrick.
“In the meantime, we’re looking at the rest of these guys closely,’’ Payton said. “I’m getting to know them.’’