Broncos want Melvin Gordon to be lead RB, but Phillip Lindsay is tough to bet against



After the Broncos spent big money on running back Melvin Gordon in free agency, there are at least 16 million reasons to believe he will their leading rusher in 2020 as their new bell cow.

But there’s one little reason to think Gordon will wind up being hamburger helper.

Phillip Lindsay is not going down without a fight. Pound for pound, there’s no tougher fighter in the team’s locker room than the 5-foot, 7-inch Colorado native who plays as big as Mt. Evans.

You think Gordon is a better running back than Lindsay?

That’s cute.

And if Lindsay has anything to say about it, the assumption Gordon is an upgrade will also be proven dead wrong.

If the Broncos make the playoffs, it will be because Lindsay is driving the orange-and-blue bandwagon rather than munching popcorn in the back of the bus.

Yes, president of football ops John Elway and coach Vic Fangio will be eager to give the starting job to Gordon as justification for signing a runner the Los Angeles Chargers let walk to a $16 million contract. The economics insist Gordon should be the bell cow, because he’s currently slated to be paid 10 times as much money as Lindsay in 2020.

But if the best player earns the most snaps, Lindsay will not only again be the team’s leading rusher, he will also become the only back other than Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis in franchise history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

As an unloved free agent signed off the street by the Broncos for a chump-change bonus of $15,000 in 2018, Lindsay proved to be the cute little feel-good story of training camp when he won a roster spot. But Lindsay quickly proved to be a more valuable player than Royce Freeman, a fellow rookie drafted in the third round.

After Lindsay rushed for 107 yards on 14 carries during a 20-19 victory against Oakland in only his second pro game, the media horde asked how it was possible this former University of Colorado star was not even been invited to the NFL Combine, where draft prospects are inspected under a microscope.

“I don’t know why. They didn’t have a lot of faith in me. They think they know everything,” Lindsay said on that September afternoon nearly two years ago, before adding:

“The Combine’s cute.”

After Lindsay rushed for 1,011 yards in 2019, proving his Pro Bowl rookie season was no fluke, Elway said: “There were 32 dumb-dumbs that didn’t draft him, and I was one of them.”

Despite repeatedly suggesting the team would like to give Lindsay a raise, Elway made the acquisition of cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, backup quarterback Jeff Driskel and even punter Sam Martin a higher priority than rewarding a Denver South High alum who has busted his tail for the Broncos.

Yes, even a knucklehead like me can grasp the football logic of how Elway is going about his business. Lindsay is under contract. The Broncos are under absolutely no obligation to give Lindsay one more dime. The signing of Gordon also makes Lindsay a less essential budgetary line on the payroll spreadsheet. Leverage is a useful hammer in negotiations.

But here’s what doesn’t add up in my mind: In addition to a $1.45 million signing bonus for their new punter, the Broncos will also pay Martin a base salary of $1.05 million in 2020.

Barring a raise, Lindsay will be paid a base salary of $750,000 this season.

That’s cute.

For as long as I’ve covered Lindsay, from early in his career at CU, he has never allowed doubters to bring him down. He doesn’t get mad. He scores touchdowns. But time and time again, I’ve heard Lindsay utter the same phrase when he’s really, really ticked by disrespect shown him:

“That’s cute.”

Lindsay doesn’t pout. He isn’t Chris Harris Jr. So Lindsay will grin and bear it as Gordon is touted as a stronger runner after contact, a more reliable blocker against the blitz and a greater threat in the passing game.

But also know: Lindsay doesn’t fumble. Gordon does. Lindsay has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in the NFL, while Gordon has averaged at least four yards per rush in only one of his five professional seasons.

Hey, I’m all for taking weight off Lindsay’s shoulders. A one-two punch in the rushing game is good. But here’s a hunch the Broncos have the pecking order all mixed up.

On a scale of one to 10, how determined will Lindsay be to show all his doubters that he’s a better running back than Gordon?

I’d put it at about 12.

Yes, there are a million reasons to think Gordon will be the bell cow.

But only a dumb-dumb would bet against Lindsay.