2022 Broncos Backfield Breakdown: Blue Balls

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics
2022 Broncos Backfield Breakdown

The 2022 Broncos Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures degree of volatility, not quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate, represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

The Denver Broncos were right at league average in total rushing volume last season. Their 55 attempts barely outpaced the league-wide mean of 452.9. They were similarly balanced in the other two years of the Vic Fangio era. They finished within 11 carries of league average in both 2020 and 2019.

In spite of those unremarkable raw carry totals, Denver was situationally a very run-heavy team a year ago. According to rbsdm.com, they had the fifth-highest early-down run rate in neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent). They performed similarly in this metric in during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. They also opted to run the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in almost every down-and-distance situation; doing so 5-percent more often than expected overall.

Given the difference between how the Broncos fall in these advanced metrics and their finish in raw carry volume, it’s likely that Denver’s offensive “balance” was a result of throwing the ball in catch-up mode more than it was a philosophical inclination to actually have balance on offense.

It’s very possible that those things change this season with the hiring of new head coach Nathaniel Hackett and the acquisition of Russell Wilson at quarterback. With Hackett as offensive coordinator from 2019-21, the Packers had the seventh-lowest early-down run rate in the league. The Jaguars were a run-heavy team with Hackett running the offense back in 2017 and 2018. With Wilson under center, it seems reasonable to expect the Broncos offense to look more like the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay attack than the Blake Bortles-led squad that Hackett had in Jacksonville.

We should see a Denver team that wants to throw the ball more often than they run it next season.

Efficiency Numbers

The Broncos had one of the league’s true two-headed backfields last year, with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams each carrying the ball just over 200 times. Mike Boone and Damarea Crockett had a handful of attempts each, but this was as consolidated a 1-2 punch as you’ll find. Here are the complete rushing efficiency profiles for all four of the Broncos runners:

One feature (bug?) of using team-relative efficiency metrics is that the results for two backs who collectively monopolize the total opportunity in their running game could hypothetically be inverses of each other. I’ve collected data on every running back on every team going back to 2016. The 2021 Broncos backfield is the one situation where that hypothetical actually manifests itself in a legitimate way.

That makes comparing the performances of Gordon and Williams to those of other running back around the league somewhat difficult using this method. But they averaged 4.52 and 4.49 raw yards per carry, respectively, good for the 69th and 67th-percentiles. They were both quality runners last season.

Relative to each other, Gordon slightly outdid Williams on a per-touch basis while running into box counts that were heavier than those Williams saw. Gordon’s Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating is a 54th-percentile mark, while his Relative Success Rate lands in the 76th-percentile.

Williams’ performances in the same metrics land in the 34th and 42nd-percentiles, respectively.

Boone and Crockett didn’t touch the ball enough to allow for strong conclusions to be drawn. For whatever it’s worth, Boone was really good on his four carries.

So Now What?

Javonte Williams shot up near the top of dynasty rankings during Melvin Gordon‘s free agency this offseason. That enthusiasm wasn’t completely unwarranted. He was a good, productive rookie runner in a timeshare, and was the same in a similar situation in college.

One of the best elements of Williams’ skillset is his ability to break tackles. His Missed Tackles Forced per Attempt numbers from his time at North Carolina were in the 99th-percentile. But I think the Williams stans get out over their skis a bit when they assume that he’s a much more effective overall runner than guys like David Montgomery, who have similar skillsets but not rabid fanbases that pull them into the first round of dynasty startups. While Williams’ career Relative Success Rate numbers from college rank in the 75th-percentile, his Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating is just 23rd-percentile number. He breaks tackles and has good instincts that allow him to consistently churn out positive yardage,. But he’s not an especially dynamic runner on aggregate. Because of that, I’m lower on him than most in dynasty.

Gordon is now 29 years old, but he’s shown little sign of slowing down. It makes sense for the younger and more juiced-up Williams to take on a larger share of the rushing work in 2022. Though Gordon is likely to remain a thorn in the side of Javonte supporters who are still manifesting elite production.

Mike Boone and Damarea Crockett shouldn’t be factors. Neither should Tyreik McCallister, an undrafted free agent out of Charleston who is the only other back currently under contract.

Final Word

Melvin Gordon re-signed with the Broncos before the NFL Draft. Yet people still draft Javonte Williams in dynasty as if Gordon isn’t on the team. Per DLF, he’s currently selected as the RB5 and as the No. 11 player off the board in single-QB startups. Other than hopes and dreams, there’s no reason to expect him to not share carries with Gordon again in 2022. I’m selling at first round prices.

Gordon is currently being drafted as the RB50 and barely inside the top-200 players overall. He’s likely to have standalone value once again. And he’d be an elite handcuff in the event that Williams takes over a bellcow role. Gordon is one of the best win-now trade targets as a legitimate fantasy contributor who can be had for dirt cheap.