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In 2018, Phillip Lindsay came out of nowhere to lead the Broncos backfield and was a fantasy force. As a waiver wire pickup in most leagues, Lindsay contributed to a lot of championships.
But the coaching staff changed over the offseason. Some think the new scheme will favor Royce Freeman. Some think Lindsay is far more talented than Freeman regardless of the scheme. And Devontae Booker is still around and seems to be Denver's third-down back.
Is there any value here? Are all three backs worth roster spots in the average 12-team league? How does this backfield shake out?
Philip Lindsay may be the biggest collective whiff of last year. No one saw his performance coming, including Denver's best beat writers and the vast majority of the fantasy analyst community -- ourselves included. His pedigree and size all but precluded Lindsay from a full-time role, not to mention the enthusiasm many had for Royce Freeman as the new bell cow.
In spite of our collective beliefs, Lindsay emerged and pushed Freeman to irrelevance.
It's tempting to assume Lindsay keeps the job until he does something to warrant losing the role. I'm not so sure.
There's a new coaching staff in Denver, including a new blocking scheme. Just because Lindsay was the apple of the 2018 coaches' eye does not mean he's guaranteed the lead role. Royce Freeman is getting rave reviews in early OTAs and seems humbled by last year's failures. Freeman remains a compelling talent more than capable of an every-down role in the right system.
At best, expect Lindsay and Freeman to share touches evenly with the game script being the tilting factor in any particular week. At worst, Freeman thrives in the new environment and takes over the job most had him earmarked for last year.
Jason's range of outcomes laid out in his conclusion above represents a fair spectrum. The blocking scheme is different, but one both backs should be able to perform in. Lindsay is a north-south runner as evidenced by his premium efficiency rating (EFF) of 3.39 yards by NextGenStats. Some may point to this being a bad fit in the wide zone scheme but remember the value of one good cut back in this scheme. Freeman is a more patient runner in the mold of an Arian Foster, which also works well. Expect Devontae Booker to be relieved us his duties given his pedestrian production and the lack of a coaching staff to defend him as their guy.
This one comes down to ADP. Freeman is going between three and four rounds later than Lindsay and is likely to offer the most return on investment given the likely range of outcomes.
Jason and Dwain hit the right notes:
- This is likely a game-flow-dependent time-share, at least to start the season.
- Freeman is the only one of these two priced to turn a profit at their current ADPs (Booker doesn’t count).
Lindsay is as big of a fade for me this year as he was a miss for me last year.
- Since 2000, there were five 1,000-yard rushing seasons by a running back who weighed under 190 pounds before Lindsay rushed for 1,037 last year. Four of those seasons belonged to Warrick Dunn. It's not difficult to spot the outlier in that sample.
- Lindsay ran tougher between the tackles than anyone thought was possible last year, but the end result -- season-ending surgery -- was a predictable outcome for a 5'7, 184 pounds back who touched the ball 15 times per game.
- He's been cleared for Training Camp, but as of this writing, we still haven't seen Lindsay participate in anything but individual drills despite being six months removed from a scary wrist surgery that initially carried a three- to four-month recovery timetable.
- While Lindsay has been rehabbing his wrist, Freeman has reportedly been a standout at Broncos OTAs, as Jason mentioned. Freeman is a former third-round pick whose combination of size, speed, and agility screams NFL bell cow. It helps he should finally be over the high-ankle sprain that hampered him for three-quarters of last season.
None of this is to say Lindsay won't have a role. He's proven himself as a legitimate big-play threat. But using him as a space-back while allowing Freeman to do the grinding on early-downs and near the goal line feels too obvious. It plays to the strengths of both players and gives Lindsay a fighting chance at staying off injured reserve.
If I’m targeting anyone in this backfield, it is Phillip Lindsay. He was simply a better player than Royce Freeman last year, and I’m not convinced that a coaching change, a slightly different scheme, or Lindsay missing OTAs will change that in 2019. Lindsay averaged 5.4 yards per carry to Freeman’s 4.0. Lindsay also averaged 1.5 more yards per target. We can argue over how much per carry or per target stats mean in the grand scheme of things but in watching the games, Lindsay also looked like the far more dangerous runner. He was also the guy his teammates rallied around as a leader on the offense.
While Lindsay’s size may keep him from being a true 300+ touch workhorse in the NFL, there isn’t much in his history to suggest he can’t hold up to a more modest workload of 15 touches per game (his 2018 average) and put up high-end RB2 fantasy numbers. In his final two seasons at Colorado, Lindsay played every game while averaging 24 touches per game. In his final college season, Lindsay topped 300 carries in just 12 games. He also made it through almost his entire rookie season unscathed and the Week 16 wrist injury doesn’t make me think he will be more injury prone than any other running back.
Royce Freeman averaged approximately 10 touches per game last season and I’m expecting something similar this season. He is a solid player but I didn’t see any special traits that would presage a big breakout season in the future. It also seems like every time a highly-drafted running back has a slightly disappointing rookie season, the coaching staff props him up with praise the following offseason. We are seeing the same thing with Ronald Jones in Tampa Bay and Rashaad Penny in Seattle. Sometimes it actually means something but there are more examples of the hype fizzling out by the fall. I’m taking any OTA hype with a major grain of salt. Freeman is a fade for me at his current 8th-round ADP. If targeting a young backup running back with upside, give me D’Onta Foreman or Damien Harris in the 11th-round instead.
While I made the case for Lindsay and he isn’t someone I am actively avoiding in drafts, he also isn’t ending up on very many of my best ball teams. I prefer Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, Sony Michel, and David Montgomery — each of whom has similar best ball ADPs to Lindsay’s.
Count me in the camp that has concerns about Phillip Lindsay following last years out of the blue fantasy season. A new coaching group and a much higher draft pick from last year in Royce Freeman awaiting an opportunity it seems a no brainer that Lindsay will be incredibly overvalued heading into 2019. That’s not to say he can’t and won’t repeat, but Phil’s point about undersized running backs is frightful. All that is fine though, but Lindsay outplayed Freeman last year and it is possible he does it again this year. Maybe we get an idea during training camp where things are, but that didn’t happen last season so this is probably a situation where I avoid both backs unless the value opens up on the board.
Phillip Lindsay is likely to get the same amount of all-purpose yards this season, but perhaps in a different way. Instead of 1,000-yard season, we might see Lindsay get 800-900 yards on the ground. Instead of around 250 yards receiving, we might see that number approach 400 yards. His 10 touchdowns will be difficult to duplicate, especially if we see more from Royce Freeman -- which we should.
They have not let Lindsay take any handoffs or catch any passes in OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Training camp starts early for the Broncos (mid-July) because they play in the Hall of Fame Game, and I don't think Lindsay is a full participant then either. However, we get to the midpoint of August then Lindsay should be good to go.
Do not underestimate his heart. He always ran well between the tackles, dating back to his days at the University of Colorado. He did surprise all of us (I thought he was James White-ish) last year and can still perform at a high level.
The biggest difference with Lindsay this year has nothing to do with him -- it all has to do with Freeman.
The Broncos are implementing a wide zone-blocking scheme this year, something that Freeman is more used to from his days at Oregon. I've seen better timing and rhythm from Freeman in minicamp and OTAs. He certainly looks more comfortable, and he has his quickness back. That high ankle sprain last year as a rookie really set him back, and Freeman wasn't the same when he returned after the injury in 2018 -- and when he returned Lindsay had taken over.
Freeman NEEDS to be the lead ball-carrier for this team, but that doesn't mean Lindsay is going to fall off a cliff. The Broncos are going to be run-heavy this year and we all know they'll have a suffocating defense. That leaves the rushing attack to lead the way on offense. They won't need to air it out because their defense won't let teams get big leads (although it will be fun to see a Vic Fangio defense against the Chiefs).
Also, we need to remember Mike Munchak here. The Broncos offensive line has been a work in progress at best, but Munchak taking over was the biggest addition the Broncos made this offseason. He made an immediate impact for the Steelers when he took over, making them a top-five rushing team in his first season -- if I'm not mistaken -- when they were ranked in the 20s the previous year.
An improved offensive line, a defense to keep things tight, an average quarterback in Joe Flacco -- all things add up to Denver having one of the strongest rushing attacks in the league. That just doesn't mean Freeman is going to explode, it also means good things for Lindsay...even with what should be a different role this year. Think of this as a Tatum Bell/Mike Anderson backfield circa 2005 or 2006 (top of my head). That's what Lindsay/Freeman should look like.