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Can Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon thrive in new Broncos offense?

Hackett's recent history suggests two RBs can be better than one
Broncos Football
Broncos Football
Posted at 3:37 PM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 17:56:27-04

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos know they need better. The numbers don't lie. They have failed to average 21 points a game since Peyton Manning retired. The addition of Russell Wilson fuels optimism, applying the emergency brake to the bobsled play of the previous 11 starting quarterbacks.

Wilson will be good, if not great. There is minimal concern about a nine-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer finding traction with his new team. However, for the Broncos to reach their potential offensively, they need balance. There are no plans to abandon the running game. It exists as a tool to employ play action on deep strikes, a trademark of Wilson's game.

Which raises the question that draws the ire of fantasy football owners: How will the playing time be divvied up between Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon? Can they co-exist and produce?

In my latest Denver7 storylines entering training camp, I examine how the running back room could shake out. Simply put, coach Nathaniel Hackett's offense will provide room for both to excel, though it will look different than a year ago. This isn't a gut feeling or a rush to judgment, but rather a conclusion drawn after diving into Hackett's last three seasons in Green Bay.

For my research, this sample size — not his entire eight years as a coordinator — made the most sense because Hackett will run a similar offense, has two functional running backs and a star quarterback.

So let's dive into the numbers to reconcile expectations for Williams and Gordon. Even with Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers refused to fall into a pass-happy trap. Green Bay ranked 15th (2019), eighth (2020) and 18th (2021) in rushing yards. It was similar in rushing touchdowns (7th in 2019, 15th in 2020 and 21st in 2021). Even more salient when looking at why general manager George Paton and Hackett wanted two backs, the Packers ranked 13th, 12th and 17th in rushing attempts.

The rankings reveal a team that will run the ball enough to keep opponent's honest. But when putting the data into a more narrow funnel, what does it mean for the Broncos' top two backs? Again, what unfolded with the Packers is helpful. Let's take a look:

2019
Aaron Jones, 236 carries, 1,084 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, 16 TDs
Jamaal Williams, 107 carries, 460 yards, 4.3 yards per attempt, 1 TD
The pair combined for 113 targets, 88 receptions and 8 receiving TDs
RUSH TOTALS: 343 -1544, 4.5 YPA, 17 TDS

2020
Aaron Jones, 201 carries, 1,104 yards, 5.5 ypa, 9 TDs
Jamaal Williams, 119 carries, 505 yards, 4.2 ypa, 2 TDs
The pair combined for 98 targets, 78 receptions, 3 receiving TDs
RUSH TOTALS: 320-1,609 , 5.02 YPA, 11 TDS

2021
A.J. Dillon, 187 carries, 803 yards, 4.3 ypa, 5 TDs
Aaron Jones, 171 carries, 799 yards, 4.7 ypa, 4 TDs
The pair combined for 102 targets, 86 catches, 8 receiving TDs.
RUSH TOTALS: 358-1,602, 4.5 YPA, 9 TDs

2019-2021 RUSH TOTALS: 1,021, 4,755, 4.7 YPA, 37 TDS

During the past two seasons, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in passing yards and touchdowns and own the fewest interceptions in each of the past three seasons. This is what balance looks like, and how Hackett blended Aaron Rodgers' strengths with those of the running backs.

It is a novel concept for anyone who has watched the Broncos recently, but backs can be receivers, too. From 2019-2021, the Packers' top two RBs combined for 2,022 receiving yards on 252 catches for 8.02 per pop.

What does this mean for the Broncos? It should translate into production from Williams and Gordon, though not identical carries (203) like a year ago. My educated guess is that Williams finishes with more carries and more yards, but that Gordon has more touchdowns because one, he does not need Siri to find the end zone — he has 20 scores the past two seasons — and, secondly, he will be revitalized as a pass catcher. That's something he did well before joining the Broncos' imagination-free attack.

My prediction: 1,100 rushing yards for Williams and 600 for Gordon with both averaging roughly 4.5 yards per attempt.

Of course, unknowns remain with a first-time head coach and new quarterback, regardless of Wilson's resume. Hackett will meld the offense around Wilson's strengths. However, he will not forget about the wide zone running attack, which is designed to produce gash plays (notice Green Bay's top two backs the past three years never averaged fewer than 4.2 yards per attempt).

Even with Wilson cooking, there will be plenty of running, and room for both Williams and Gordon to prosper.