Phillip Lindsay Is Proving Again That NFL Teams Can Wait on RBs on Draft Day

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystNovember 30, 2018

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 25:  Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos carries the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High  on November 25, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Back on April 26, the New York Giants raised eyebrows around the NFL by doing something that no team had done since 2006: They drafted a running back second overall (Saquon Barkley).

Barkley is still garnering attention months later, only now it happens every time he peels off a long run or takes a reception to the house. Barkley has already piled up over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored 12 touchdowns. He's averaging a robust 4.9 yards per carry.

By every indication, he's the real deal.

However, just over 1,700 miles to the west, another hard-charging first-year runner is also making a name for himself. And as Phillip Lindsay of the Denver Broncos closes in on 1,000 yards from scrimmage and a piece of NFL history, he's proving once again that for NFL teams, draft-day patience can be the greatest virtue of all in the backfield.

Lindsay didn't exactly start his rookie year as a big part of the Broncos' plans. Despite accruing 1,474 yards on 301 carries for the University of Colorado last year, he endured all 256 picks of the 2018 NFL draft without hearing his name called. Lindsay wasn't even invited to the scouting combine.

He admitted to the Peter King Podcast that he had mixed feelings when the hometown Broncos called.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 25:  Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos celebrates scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High  on November 25, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

"After the draft was done, I was angry too," he said. "... Mainly I was angry with the Broncos ... because I looked at them and they picked two running backs in front of me. But at the end of the day, [they] now are probably two of my best friends, which is funny. But we've been through a lot now. They picked a seventh-round pick that I thought maybe I was going to be that guy. ... Then the Broncos called me saying that they want me. But by that time, I was mad. I was like, ‘Nah. I don't want to go here [to] somebody who doesn't want me.' And at that time, I'm sitting there like, ‘I don't know where I want to go, and I've got 15 minutes to decide.' My family is going crazy. My agent is trying to tell me what's best for me. And I'm just running with a lot of emotion at that time."

Lindsay chose to sign with Denver, but he opened training camp on the depth chart behind veteran Devontae Booker and fellow rookies Royce Freeman and David Williams.

After accumulating 70 yards on 13 carries in the preseason, Lindsay made his way past Williams. But he still began his first NFL season as an afterthought.

That didn't last long.

In Week 2, Lindsay opened eyes across the NFL with the first 100-yard day of his career, when he gashed the Raiders for 107 yards on just 14 carries. It became evident early that Lindsay doesn't play around. He hits the hole hard. Runs angry.

Two weeks later, Lindsay scored his first touchdown. Week in and week out, he's putting together good per-carry averages and also demonstrating that he's more than capable as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. 

While Booker struggled and Freeman was just OK, Lindsay shined. As Jon Heath of Broncos Wire reported, he's earned the trust and respect of teammates like quarterback Case Keenum.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 4:  Running back Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos rushes against the Houston Texans in the third quarter of a game at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 4, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Image
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

"He's a guy you can count on ... to make plays," Keenum said. "Teams are probably scheming to stop him. We're doing a great job of getting him the ball in space, and even when he's not, he's grinding it out in between the tackles and making some big plays. It's been impressive."

Week 12 was Lindsay's crowning achievement. Against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, Lindsay rolled for 110 yards and a score on just 14 carries in a Broncos win.

Well, it was his crowning achievement until Week 13, anyway, Against the Cincinnati Bengals Lindsay was the key to the win that got Denver back to .500, peeling off 157 yards and two scores on 19 carries.

He's not going to lead all rookies in rushing or win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors this year. At this rate, it appears likely Barkley will do both.

But Lindsay is averaging an absurd 5.8 yards per carry, and if he can eclipse the 1,104 rushing yards amassed by Dominic Rhodes of the Colts in 2001 (a mark he's on pace to surpass), he will set the NFL record for rushing yards by an undrafted rookie. In doing so, he would establish himself as arguably the biggest steal of 2018.

Lindsay's emergence (and the recent surge by Gus Edwards of the Baltimore Ravens, who is also an undrafted rookie) doesn't mean the Giants made a mistake by drafting Barkley, or that the Cowboys shouldn't have taken Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016. Both young tailbacks are elite talents who rank inside the top five in the NFL in rushing this year.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 4:  Quarterback Case Keenum #4 hands the ball to running back Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter of a game at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 4, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradfor
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

But with that high draft pick comes a big financial commitment at a position in which many NFL teams are hesitant to make a huge investment. Barkley's four-year rookie deal checks in at just over $31 million. Lindsay's three-year rookie deal is for under $2 million.

If the pick hits—as Barkley and Elliott did—then you can argue it's money well spent. But what of a case like Leonard Fournette? Set to make $27 million over the course of his rookie deal, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017 gained over 1,000 yards as a rookie. But Fournette is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry for his career and has already missed nine games due to injuries. He'll miss a 10th this week thanks to a suspension.

And even if you maintain that Fournette is by no means a bust, the last back taken in the top five before Elliott (Trent Richardson in 2012) was an unmitigated disaster.

There's also the matter of the players who aren't taken when a team chooses a running back early in the first round. Yes, Barkley appears to be a transcendent talent, but with shaky play at quarterback and on the offensive line, he plays for a three-win team. Fournette is on a Jaguars team that imploded this season. How much better would those Jaguars be with T.J. Yeldon in the backfield and Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson under center? Both of those young stars at football's most important position were on the board when Jacksonville selected Fournette.

The list of elite performers in the NFL at premium positions like quarterback, offensive tackle and cornerback are littered with Round 1 picks. Yes, there are exceptions like Russell Wilson, David Bakhtiari and Richard Sherman. But trying to find difference-makers at those positions late is like trying to win Mega Millions.

Possible, but highly unlikely.

It's been significantly easier to fill holes in the backfield with mid- or late-round picks. Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs (the 2017 rushing king) and Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints (last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year) were third-round picks. So was James Conner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has made the team look wise in its decision to forgo giving Le'Veon Bell a massive contract extension by ranking third in the NFL in rushing through 12 weeks.

Lamar Miller of the Texans? Fourth round. Chris Carson of the Seahawks? Seventh round. Matt Breida of the San Francisco 49ers? Undrafted.

Go back a little further and there are plenty more examples. Jamaal Charles, who averages the most yards per carry in NFL history among running backs with at least 1,000 carries, was a third-round pick. So was Frank Gore, who has nine 1,000-yard seasons over a 14-year career. Arian Foster, who topped 1,000 yards four times over eight seasons and led the league in rushing once and rushing scores twice, was (like Lindsay) undrafted.

Given that RBs also historically have shorter careers (per Football Outsiders a Wall Street Journal study pegged the average running back's career from 2000 to 2013 at less than 2.5 years), the less draft capital and money a team invests in the position, the less it has to lose if a player doesn't pan out or gets hurt.

The NFL has put its own cap on the value of the running back position. In terms of average annual salary, there's just one running back (per Spotrac) among the league's top 70 players (Todd Gurley) and two inside the top 175.

Again, this doesn't mean that the Giants were wrong to draft Barkley. But if you look at the totality of these situations, who's worse off?

  • The team that spent a top-five pick on a star tailback but wasn't able to address its myriad other needs? That's Barkley's Giants, who are 3-8. 
  • The team that traded up to draft a quarterback in Round 1 and then circled back to grab a running back on Day 2? That's the Kansas City Chiefs last year. They are 9-2. 
  • Or the team that went with an edge-rusher in the top five and quantity over quality at running back? That's the 2018 Broncos, who grabbed a talented partner for Von Miller in Bradley Chubb and now have both talent and depth in the backfield with Lindsay and Freeman. They are 5-6 and on the fringe of playoff contention.

One of those three teams is nowhere near contention. They won't be in 2019, either.

Not every late-round or undrafted RB is as good as Phillip Lindsay. Don't NFL teams wish they were. And although there aren't any sure-fire first-round talents in the class of 2019, there will continue to be young ball-carriers who will hear their names called early.

But at a position that remains devalued (by salary, among other reasons) and continues to produce talented young contributors late in the draft, you can bet that there will be more Phillip Lindsays as well—late-round and undrafted diamonds in the rough who surprise fans and delight front offices.

And why pay retail if you can get yards and scores at a discount?