#71 Broncos: OLB Royce Freeman

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Overview
If there was a "Comeback Player of the Year" award in college football, Freeman might qualify in 2017, when he rebounded from a painful junior campaign slowed by injury to set the all-time Pac-12 record for rushing touchdowns with 60, as well as Oregon's record for career rushing yards (5,621). Freeman's success in 2017 is all the more impressive given that the Ducks' quarterbacks struggled with injuries and the passing game was not nearly as explosive as in past years - accounting for the same number of touchdowns via the air (16) as Freeman registered on the ground through the regular season.

It was an exclamation point to a brilliant college career.
Freeman turned down offers to Alabama, Florida, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Stanford (among others) in signing with Oregon. He immediately showed why recruiters were so hot on his trail, earning Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2014 with 1,365 rushing yards and a conference-best 18 touchdowns on the ground. He then proved that his spectacular freshman season was no fluke, earning First Team All-Pac-12 honors as a true sophomore with a school-record 1,836 yards, including 17 more rushing touchdowns.

With Marcus Mariota (or Vernon Adams) no longer taking snaps, defenses were able to focus more on Freeman and Oregon's running game in 2016 and his numbers slipped. Nonetheless, even with a cracked sternum and nagging ankle injury, Freeman averaged an impressive 5.6 yards and a rushing touchdown a game over his first eight contests of the year, finishing with 945 yards and nine scores on the year - the only season in his four at Oregon in which he failed to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark and score double-digit touchdowns.

With a new coaching staff coming into town, Freeman surprised many by electing to return for the 2017 season. Freeman won by gambling on himself, however, enjoying arguably the best overall season of his college career. He averaged a healthy 6.0 yards per carry to register 1,475 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns while also chipping in 14 grabs for 164 yards. A true workhorse, Freeman rushed for 122 yards in every game in 2017 in which he logged more than 15 carries, (9/12 games).

At a chiseled 5-foot-10, 234 pounds, Freeman certainly looks the part of an NFL workhorse back. He runs behind his pads with good forward lean, leg drive and determination but is much more than just a sledgehammer, showing surprisingly light feet, balance and speed. He is already an effective receiver out of the backfield with the athleticism and soft hands to ultimately excel in this area.

BACKGROUND
Freeman signed with Oregon as a five star recruit after a record-setting prep career. He remains the San Diego Section record holder for career rushing yards (7,606), rushing touchdowns (111), and points scored (724), passing former Chicago Bears first round pick and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) who had 105 scores. Freeman missed just one game due to injury (Colorado, 2016) over his four years at Oregon, earning kudos from coaches that season for playing through several injuries, including a cracked sternum and nagging ankle sprain.

Analysis
STRENGTHS: Freeman possesses a compact, muscle-bound frame, including a stout lower half. He is powerful, running through arm tackles and showing impressive leg drive and natural forward lean to generate yards after contact. Perhaps most impressively, Freeman possesses very light feet for his size, picking his way through traffic and altering his gait to throw off would-be tacklers. Freeman is an alert, instinctive runner.

He attacks the hole when it is there but shows patience to allow his blocks to develop, as well as the vision and burst to take advantage of cutback lanes. He plays faster than he looks, consistently beating middle linebackers to the corner and accelerating to and through the hole into the secondary. Freeman may lack elite breakaway speed but he's rarely caught from behind and has multiple 50+ yard touchdowns over his career. Freeman looks comfortable catching passes out of the backfield, showing good hand-eye coordination and body control to pluck outside of his frame. He is still a work in progress as a pass blocker but has improved over his career and possesses the frame to handle this role. The Oregon coaches have publicly lauded Freeman's maturity and work ethic.

COMPARES TO: Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, Steelers. Freeman is built more like a Sherman tank than "The Bus," but he shows a similar combination of raw power, underrated agility and consistency as the 5-11, 243 pound Bettis, who eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark eight times over his illustrious career in St. Louis and Pittsburgh - 3rd most in NFL history when he retired in 2005.

IN OUR VIEW: Oregon's former running back coach, Gary Campbell, often compared Freeman to another former Ducks star - current Carolina Panthers standout Jonathan Stewart. Campbell cited the players' similar low-key personalities, builds and running styles. One area in which Freeman and Stewart are different is durability. While Stewart struggled with durability at Oregon and since in the NFL after earning a first round pick back in 2008, Freeman missed just one game over his collegiate career.
Some will quibble with the fact that - as a four-year starter - Freeman has logged plenty of carries over his career. Backs with his combination of durability, size, power and agility are rare and generally do not last long on draft day, however. With the work ethic to take full advantage of his raw talent, Freeman projects as a bell-cow runner in the NFL, with a top 50 draft selection likely if he can answer questions about his straight-line speed during workouts.

WEAKNESSES: Freeman may look the part but he is not the consistent punisher his size suggests, looking to elude rather than barrel through defenders, at times. His occasional lack of ideal physicality can also show up in pass protection, where Freeman needs to show more willingness to deliver a blow, bend his knees and anchor against hard-charging blitzers rather than simply catch them.

He runs with a natural forward lean but can get too far over his skis, making himself vulnerable to defenders cutting him down at the knees. Freeman played in a RB-friendly offense which created relatively wide running lanes and rarely ran behind a fullback, potentially complicating his transition to a more traditional "pro style" scheme. Further, while Freeman has several long runs on his resume, he does not possess ideal breakaway speed with defenders too often catching him from behind.

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