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Running back could be free agent target for Broncos

Veteran rusher provides help if Williams needs time to recover
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Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-09 21:15:34-05

DENVER — The Denver Broncos did not wander into a 5-12 record last season. It was a stumbling fall into the abyss. While the former coaching staff deserves blame, the players' fingerprints are embedded on this failure beyond Russell Wilson.

It drives home the point that the Broncos need to hit home runs in free agency, even if only taking a few big swings. The legal tampering period opens at 10 a.m. Monday with the Broncos' needs including right tackle, interior offensive line, interior defensive line if Dre'Mont Jones signs elsewhere as expected, running back and edge rusher. The Broncos only have five draft picks — two thirds (67 and 68), one fourth (108), one fifth (139) and one sixth (195) — though I expect them to add a few more with trades before or during the selection process.

The siphoned draft capital from the Wilson and Sean Payton trades adds importance to free agency.

Earlier this week, I focused on the right tackle position. Denver is staring at starting its eighth different right tackle in eight consecutive opening days. Kaleb McGary, Jawaan Taylor, Andrew Wylie are names worth filing away.

But what about running back? The knee-jerk reaction is to believe Denver is covered. The reality is that they are not until more is known about Javonte Williams' recovery from ACL surgery. The brutish former North Carolina star seeks violence when he runs, commanding respect. He continues to rehab at UCHealth Training Center as he make progress, but realistically, he might not be ready until late September or October given when he was hurt.

Payton has talked publicly about the need to address the offensive line. And he acknowledged that helping Wilson rebound centers on putting him in position to succeed — not having him sing karaoke tunes with lyrics he doesn't know. The best way to prop up a quarterback is to run the ball well to set up play-action strikes, while also incorporating bootlegs and mobile pockets.

I expect the Broncos to bring back Latavius Murray. Murray reached out to Payton before last season was over, believing he could help the backfield and Wilson. Murray is 33 and entering his 10th year in the NFL. He can return as a veteran leader — teammates respect him — while playing the role Mark Ingram filled in New Orleans.

But what about a proven starter until Williams is ready? I believe it must be considered. During Payton's 16 years in New Orleans, his top rusher — Deuce McCallister, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas (three times), Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles, Ingram (five times) and Alvin Kamara (four times) — averaged 809 yards and eclipsed 1,000 yards three times. He likes versatile backs who can keep the defense honest.

There are multiple options on the market. Let's take a look:

Kareem Hunt, Browns, 5-11, 216, 27
Broncos fans know Hunt because of his first two seasons in Kansas City, where he rushed for 2,151 yards and delivered 25 touchdowns. The Chiefs cut Hunt in 2018 after the NFL suspended him after surveillance video showed Hunt kicking a woman he had pushed to the ground. He landed in Cleveland the past four years, never approaching his previous statistics, but filling a different role as a backup, most recently for Nick Chubb.

Hunt has averaged 32 receptions over the last three seasons. And with fewer reps and hits — 201 combined carries over the past two seasons — he is a relatively young 27. Spotrac projects a contract of $14.0 million over two years with Joe Mixon and Chase Edmonds, who the Broncos are likely to cut, listed as comps based on age, contract status and production.

That might be too pricey, but it is worth exploring as an option to protect Denver, while also adding a back with the physicality of Williams and Murray.

Miles Sanders, Eagles, 5-11, 211, 25
Sanders helped the Eagles showcase one of the league's most dynamic offenses. He ran for a career-high 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns for the NFC's best team. He is younger than Hunt and has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his four-year career. Spotrac sees a similar contract to Hunt — two years, $14.4 million.

Sanders has demonstrated pass-catching ability, but only averaged 23 catches the past two seasons, almost vanishing as a weapon out of the backfield. His speed can stress the defense, and Payton has exploited players like Kamara and Sproles in space.

Damien Harris, Patriots, 5-11, 213, 26
Harris is a prime candidate for a bounceback season. He rushed for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2021. Last year, he missed time with hamstring and thigh injuries, finishing with 462 yards on the ground. He is a physical runner and smart player. Interestingly, Spotrac projects him to receive a three-year, $21 million deal. I don't see the Broncos playing on that, not in this market. With so many capable backs available, someone will be left without a chair when the music stops.

Others available:
Jamaal Williams, D'Onta Freeman, Devin Singletary and Jeff Wilson.