Coming out of Utah, scouts loved running back Devontae Booker's versatility and his one-cut downhill running style. Most saw the potential for him to be a complete three-down back and one of the bigger "steals" of the 2016 NFL Draft after he was selected in the fourth round by the Denver Broncos. As a rookie, however, Booker has only averaged 3.5 yards per carry and has not established himself. A big reason for his lack of production is due to his inability to create on the Broncos' staple running play:
The "outside zone" stretch.
For this article, I tracked his previous three games versus the New Orleans Saints, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Jacksonville Jaguars to see the trends of his performance. In these three games, Denver ran outside zone 28 times, or 43% of their called running plays. Out of those attempts, Booker's offensive line has blocked an average of 2.7 yards per carry, while he has only mustered 2.4 yards per carry. While 0.3 yards may seem insignificant, the Broncos use this play religiously on first and second downs to set the tone for the rest of the drive.
In the NFL, a coach will run outside zone as a device to set up a cutback lane for an inside zone running play. On the inside zone running plays, Booker is much better at seeing holes gaining 2.4 yards per carry when his line has only blocked for 1.4 yards per carry. In addition to trying to setup the cutback lane, you also run this play to exhaust the defensive line by forcing them to chase the run. Simply put, if you are not gaining the yards your offensive line is blocking for you, you statistically make it more difficult for your team to convert on third downs.
The first play we'll look at was during the Broncos' Week 12 match-up versus the Chiefs. This play was during the first quarter with 10:43 remaining. Denver lines up in Singleback, then motion tight end (83) AJ Derby into the backfield to form an Offset-I formation.
After the snap, Booker takes a rhythm step to improve the timing of the play. He then starts moving towards the offensive line with urgency aiming towards the outside. Looking at the blocking, Kansas City edge defender (91) Tamba Hali has outside leverage on left tackle (73) Russell Okung, so Booker looks to cut inside of him. Left guard (76) Max Garcia and center (61) Matt Paradis combination block 92 Dontari Poe before Garcia disengages to move to the playside linebacker.
Based on how much movement the left guard and center created combined with the cut block by the right guard, a crease opens up behind the center. Booker misses this crease and continues on his path. Running backs are taught to read this play outside in. This means you start with the end man on the line of scrimmage and work your way back to the center of the defense. While this is true, the next level understanding of this play is to read the flow of the defensive line and project where the defenders will be based on your line’s blocks. Booker doesn’t consistently do this.
The next issue I have with this play is how narrowly he runs through the gap. This was a trend during the film I watched on him. He consistently ran into the butt or side of his offensive lineman instead of centering himself in the gap. With Poe staying relatively square with the center, Booker allows Poe the opportunity to pull him down with his outside arm.
Two carries later and the Broncos run another outside zone to the left.
Worried about giving initial penetration, the left guard (76) Max Garcia purposely steps back to gain leverage on his reach block. This helps seal (95) Chris Jones inside. Arriving at the gap, Booker once again narrowly hugs the outside hip of his interior blocker instead of pressing the hole aiming at the inside hip of the left tackle. He then takes his gap too quickly and misses his potential second level cut. There is a very good chance that Poe would have made the tackle, but on 1st and 5 this could have netted him an extra two yards and potentially more if Booker broke through the tackle.
Let's jump back to the Week 10 match versus the Saints. Denver runs outside zone weak in the 4th quarter with just under five minutes remaining.
After the snap, the New Orleans’ line defends it well maintaining their gap responsibilities on the right side of the formation. The edge defender has outside leverage on right tackle (74) Ty Sambrailo. This is a clue for Booker to cut inside, but he tries to force the run outside instead. This is a mistaken read based on his blocks.
Where should the run have gone?
With no clear running lane, Booker has to turn his body north-to-south and bully forward for as many hard yards that he can get. Instead, he turns laterally and gets dragged down for a four-yard loss.
During the Broncos' recent victory over the Jaguars, Denver runs outside zone to the right out of Singleback. Booker takes the handoff and reads the right side of the offensive line. Both of the defenders have outside leverage, so he correctly turns inside.
Instead of finishing the run tough, Booker sees Jacksonville defensive lineman (95) Abry Jones and then incorrectly turns outside to the wrong hole. The difference between these two runs is realistically small, but turning inside would have netted him at least one or two more yards.
Now these plays represent the general mistakes and areas of improvement. He certainly didn't lose yards on every outside zone running play, and he even ran some well.
Speaking of positives, there is a lot to like about Booker. He's a very decisive runner. While not having generational talent and speed, he's a versatile player and offers a lot to Denver based on the type of running plays they can execute.
As of right now, he is the type of running back that fits better in inside zone running plays and other specific gap-style running plays that offer a limited window with quick reads and decisions. It's of no coincidence to me that he gained the greatest yard differential between blocking and his own ability on inside zone (+1.0), lead slams (+2.3), and one back power (+3.7) running plays.
One of my absolute favorite running plays came against the Chiefs near the start of the third quarter. The Broncos run inside zone to the left and Booker does a fantastic job using the flow of the defensive line against them to gain 13 yards on the play. Not only does he show great vision, but also he ends the run with power, decisive second level movement, and good forward lean.
Ironically, this play should have been called back for a holding penalty. Fullback (32) Andy Janovich absolutely mugs linebacker (57) DJ Alexander in the backside A-gap after missing his block. While it should have been a penalty, I can't fault Booker for taking advantage of the referee's mistake.
In order for Booker to take the next step, he has to set up blocks better by pressing the hole. There was one outside zone run against the Jaguars that really gave me hope for his future.
This play happened halfway through the second quarter. Booker takes the handoff and actually presses the hole setting up his cut lane inside for positive yards. This attribute was rare in my tracking, though, and he needs to improve in order to take the next level.
The last play we’ll discuss was Booker’s next running play in this game. Right guard (79) Michael Schofield pulls across the formation and misses his block on the left edge. Booker stays upright then powers his way into the endzone for his third rushing touchdown of the season.
The Denver Broncos have the 11th best run blocking line according to FootballOutsiders. There are only six teams in the NFL that have a negative differential in running back yards gained versus adjusted line yards and the Broncos are one of those teams. Simply put, Booker and the other running backs on the team need to execute better.
Denver just signed Justin Forsett who figures to take some of the carries going forward. Booker should still be heavily used, especially with CJ Anderson and Kapri Bibbs placed on injured reserved. If he can improve his execution on the Broncos’ outside zone running play, he might be able to claim the starter spot for the team going forward.