Finding the Fits: Freeman stabilizes Broncos' running game

Royce Freeman rushed for 60 TDs at Oregon.Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Freeman is a polished, all-around back.

By Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com

This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which NFLDraftScout.com will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

Denver Broncos' best fit: Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, selected No. 71 overall (third round)

John Elway knows better than most the value of a reliable running back.

After all, while Elway was laying the foundation for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame by leading Denver to three Super Bowl appearances over his first seven seasons as the team's star quarterback, it was not until the emergence of fellow Hall of Famer Terrell Davis that he and the Broncos broke through and won the championship in 1997. They successfully defended their title a year later.

Elway, the player and general manager, knows full well how difficult it is to win in the NFL without a consistent running game -- something difficult to do given the unusual turnover the Broncos have undergone at running back since the turn of the century.

Over the past five seasons, four different running backs have led the Broncos in rushing. C.J. Anderson, Denver's leading rusher last year (1,007 yards) and the only back to accomplish this feat twice during this period (2014, 2017), moved on in the offseason.

Over the past 17 NFL seasons, Willis McGahee (2011-2012) is the only back to lead the Broncos in rushing yards in consecutive years. Davis accomplished the feat in four consecutive years during his heyday from 1995 to 1998.

Elway and Broncos head coach Vance Joseph are hoping that Freeman, who rushed for 5,621 yards and 60 touchdowns over four starting seasons at Oregon, can provide Denver with needed reliability.

The prototypically-built Freeman (6-0, 230) certainly looks the part of an immediate-impact pick, offering not only the power expected of a back this size but surprising agility and burst, as well. He is a bigger, more instinctive runner than third-year pro Devontae Booker (the incumbent competing with Freeman to take Anderson's place as the starter) and is a reliable receiver, catching 79 passes during his college career.

Freeman earned immediate comparisons to former Oregon star (and longtime NFL starter) Jonathan Stewart in Eugene, exploding onto the Pac-12 scene with 1,365 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns as a true freshman. He set a career-high with 1,836 rushing yards as a sophomore and looked like a shoo-in to follow Stewart as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft with one more big season.

Unfortunately, Freeman was plagued by various injuries (including a cracked sternum) during his junior season, limiting him to "just" 945 yards and nine touchdowns over 11 games.

Back healthy last season (but facing stacked boxes with Oregon dealing with injuries and inconsistency at quarterback), Freeman quietly ended his career in fine form, averaging a healthy six yards per carry on his way to 1,475 rushing yards and another 14 scores.

Those numbers did not receive as much national attention as they should with several smaller, shiftier backs lighting up Pac-12 defenses last year, like Stanford's Heisman finalist Bryce Love (2,118 yards and 19 TDs), Washington's Myles Gaskin (whose 24 TDs led the conference) and Southern California's Ronald Jones III, who rushed for 1,550 yards and 19 scores and was drafted a full round earlier (No. 38 overall) by Tampa Bay.

While perhaps lacking the explosive breakaway speed of these smaller backs (including former Colorado star turned Denver UDFA Phillip Lindsay), Freeman is otherwise a polished, all-around back with an impressive record of consistency and reliability. This includes as a receiver and pass protector, which certainly Elway and shiny new free agent quarterback Case Keenum (or youngsters Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly) will appreciate.

As such, don't be surprised when Freeman emerges as the Broncos' leading rusher as a rookie or when he maintains this role for years to come.

Other thoughts on the Broncos' 2018 draft class:

While Freeman is expected to impress on offense, No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb is in an even more enviable position on defense for the Broncos, with the presence of Von Miller on the other side likely to leave the consensus top edge rusher in the 2018 draft facing a lot of single blockers as a rookie.

Though he is making the transition to outside linebacker after starring as a traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end at North Carolina State, Chubb is a coordinated, powerful athlete with the awareness and commitment to technique to succeed immediately, perhaps even putting up the kind of numbers that could earn him Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration.

Unlike running back, receiver has been a position of relative strength for the Broncos during Elway's tenure as general manager with former first-round pick Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) leading Denver in receiving yards for the seventh consecutive season in 2017. Further, while an injury-shorted campaign limited his production last year, Emmanuel Sanders (5-11, 180) finished with over 1,000 yards in each of the three previous seasons, setting up a strong 1-2 punch at pass-catcher similar to what Keenum enjoyed during last year's breakout in Minnesota with Adam Thielen (6-2, 200) and speedy Stefon Digg (6-0, 190).

That's why it was a bit surprising to see Elway and the Broncos invest high draft picks in Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Nevertheless, surrounding Keenum with receivers possessing terrific body control, size and competitiveness with the ball in the air certainly make sense, especially with Thomas, 30, eating up $12 million in salary cap space this year and an eye-popping $17.53 million in 2019.

Of Denver's Day Three picks, watch out for a pair of former Big Ten standouts, linebacker Josey Jewell (Iowa) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (Wisconsin) to ultimately out-play their draft selections.

While lacking top-notch athleticism, similar to Freeman, Jewell and Fumagalli each ranked among the more consistent and reliable performers at their respective positions during their college careers. With few established veterans currently ahead of them on Denver's depth chart, both could join Freeman as surprisingly early contributors.

Denver's 2018 draft class:

1st Round, No. 5 overall: Bradley Chubb, DE/OLB, North Carolina State

2nd Round, No. 40 overall: Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist

3rd Round, No. 71 overall: Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

3rd Round, No. 99 overall: Isaac Yiadom, CB, Boston College

4th Round, No. 106 overall: Josey Jewell, ILB, Iowa

4th Round, No. 113 overall: DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State

5th Round, No. 156 overall: Troy Fumagalli, TE, Wisconsin

6th Round, No. 183 overall: Sam Jones, OG, Arizona State

6th Round, No. 217 overall: Keishawn Beirria, LB, Washington

7th Round, No. 226 overall: David Williams, RB, Arkansas

Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:

Jeff Holland, ILB, Auburn

Leon Johnson, OT, Temple

Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado

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