Unlike baseball or basketball, the NFL season is simply too short to wait players out and see if they’ll eventually be the guy we thought they’d be in the offseason. Sure, Week 1 is the overreaction week and sure, some of the things we saw there—the Titans looking good, the 49ers’ offense looking bad, Baker Mayfield looking lost and Sammy Watkins looking like a God—didn’t stand the test of time. But once an overreaction permeates through two weeks of football, it’s time to start giving it the attention it deserves.
For two weeks now we’ve seen the Broncos’ backfield be almost a dead even split between last year’s undrafted rookie star Phillip Lindsay and 2018 third-round pick Royce Freeman (32 to 27 touches respectively).
This shouldn’t come as a shock to people as it was what we heard all offseason from head coach Vic Fangio and the rest of Denver’s coaching staff. They made it clear they wanted to use a committee approach, making sure Freeman was more involved in the offense than he was last year. In the words of my esteemed colleague Clark Barnes, sometimes coaches tell the truth.
What should shock people (or maybe more make you tilt your head to the side and say “oh really, I do find that surprising”) is which of these backs has been the clear-cut, no-doubt better player.
Through two games, Freeman leds the Broncos on the ground with 110 yards, 23rd in the league right now. (He has more rushing yards than David Johnson, Kerryon Johnson, Sony Michel and David Montgomery to pick out a few popular fantasy names.) His 5.2 yards per carry ranks him 12th in the league among running backs who’ve had at least 15 carries to start the season. You see all of this when you put on his tape. Freeman looks the better back, finding the right holes and showing the size and strength to shed blockers while continuing to move downhill.
Meanwhile, while we’ve seen flashes of last year’s Phillip Lindsay, he’s been far less efficient with his touches to start the season.
On the ground Lindsay is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, a far cry from the 5.4 he averaged last year and the 5.2 his running mate currently averages. And unfortunately he hasn’t been much better in the passing game, averaging only 6.6 yards per catch—third worst in the league among running backs with at least eight catches. We haven’t seen the home run ability Lindsay demonstrated last year; he has yet to record a rush of 20 or more yards after racking up eight last year (tied for fifth most among running backs).
Fantasy-wise, this isn’t great
If you drafted Phillip Lindsay in your fantasy league, nothing you’ve seen so far this season is encouraging.
Coming off a monster rookie season, one in which he finished RB12 thanks to 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground plus another 241 yards and a touchdown through the air, Lindsay certainly wasn’t cheap to get onto your fantasy team. Likely he cost you anywhere between a third and a fifth round pick in your drafts, locking him in as either your RB2 or high-end FLEX for the season. It’s not easy to see a player you invested a fourth round pick in struggle out of the gate.
While I do feel sympathy for Lindsay owners (I’m a kind compassionate person occasionally), Denver’s backfield shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. The writing was on the wall the entire offseason, written in big block letters.
This is why I was so wishy-washy on Lindsay this year. He clearly had an amazing rookie season, but after the Broncos spent then entire summer shouting about Royce Freeman—THEIR THIRD ROUND PICK—from the rooftops, I just wasn’t sold there was going to be consistent work for Lindsay worthy of making him a fourth round pick. I mean, depending on when you drafted, I saw ADPs were backs like Derrick Henry, Marlon Mack, Mark Ingram and Austin Ekeler where all going after Lindsay. Hindsight is 20-20 but even in July, I would’ve taken most all those names over Lindsay.
(Quickly, I keep bringing up Freeman’s draft spot because teams care about that kind of thing. If a team takes a player high in the draft, they want to prove that that draft pick was worth making, even if they find a diamond in the rough at the same position. The Broncos are going to give Freeman every opportunity possible to prove himself because in turn, it proves the Broncos’ scouting department and coaching staff knew what they were doing selecting him so high. Don’t ignore draft spot when looking at team’s depth charts.)
Is there hope for Lindsay owners?
Yes, but it’s not keeping him on your roster. This running back committee is here to stay in Denver and so long as that’s true, Lindsay has a very low ceiling. Even if the committee were to go away, I don’t think it would fall in favor of Lindsay. Week 1 saw Lindsay leading the backfield taking 53% of snaps. That number dropped to 48% in Week 2 with Freeman taking the bulk of the work (52%).
If the Broncos do turn to one running back this season, it’s likely going to be Royce Freeman.
If you have Lindsay on your fantasy team, now’s the time to trade him. Even if you expect him to start becoming a little more effective with his touches, which isn’t the craziest of notions, Freeman and this offense (which I haven’t really touched on, but it spoiler alert: it sucks) cap Lindsay's value well below the fourth round pick you spent on him.
I’m offering Lindsay to anyone who wants him, trying to sell him while the delicious scent of his rookie season still tickles people’s nostrils, before it’s ultimately replaced by the stench of his 2019 campaign.