Broncos RB Jaleel McLaughlin determined to carve out bigger role in Year 2

Even after Jaleel McLaughlin overcame the odds last season, going from an undrafted free agent to making the Broncos’ 53-man roster, the shifty running back’s mindset remains the same.

Throughout the offseason when most workouts and practices were voluntary, McLaughlin continued his tradition of beating head coach Sean Payton to the practice facility, arriving at 5:15 a.m. to hit the weight room.

“By the time he’s at breakfast and most people are arriving, he’s put in a good hour and a half’s worth of work,” Payton said. “(That’s) the way he’s wired, and it’s impressive.”

The same engine that pushed McLaughlin to rise before dawn each day was on overdrive during mandatory minicamp. Quickly moving down the field whenever he was handed the ball, there were times McLaughlin appeared even faster than he was as a rookie.

As McLaughlin approaches his second season in the NFL, he is hungrier than ever. He better understands his role within the offense, and with added competition in the running back room, McLaughlin knows he has to continue pushing his limits.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone who works harder than him,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “His speed, acceleration (and) explosiveness have all been impressive this spring.”

Around this time in 2023, McLaughlin didn’t know the type of player he could be. After becoming the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, the former Youngstown State standout was primarily focused on making the roster.

Once McLaughlin officially made the team, he carved out a role as a versatile weapon out of the backfield. Against the Chicago Bears in Week 4, he had 104 total offensive yards, including 72 on seven rush attempts.

A week later against the New York Jets, he had 89 total yards. But just like his teammate and wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr., McLaughlin’s playing time decreased as the season progressed. He played fewer than 10 offensive snaps in five of the last eight regular season games.

In Year 2, McLaughlin wants to make a larger contribution. He spent the offseason watching film and studying what he could’ve done better.

“I noticed that I didn’t do half the stuff that I was supposed to do last year,” McLaughlin said. “And that’s what makes me hungry. I left a lot on the football field, and I’m not going to do that this year.”

Payton said McLaughlin has been determined to expand his opportunities in the passing game — approaching the head coach multiple times for film cut-ups to examine certain routes.

Pass blocking is another aspect McLaughlin has worked to improve. He has gotten stronger and practiced his footwork. Training camp and preseason games will serve as an indicator of whether McLaughlin’s offseason work has paid off.

But Denver’s spring practices were essential for McLaughlin to spot different defensive coverages and alignments.

“Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to work at it,” Lombardi said. “We’re not in pads, so you can’t see everything, but just as far as his intention and assignment on pass protection he has been outstanding.”

Denver Broncos Running Back Jaleel McLaughlin (38) works out during Minicamp practice at Broncos Park Powered by CommonSpirit in Englewood on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. (Photo by Zachary Spindler-Krage/The Denver Post)

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This summer, running back might be one of the most heated position battles for the Broncos. In addition to returning veterans Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine, Denver added rookies Audric Estime and Blake Watson to the mix. Similar to McLaughlin, Watson, who rushed for 1,152 yards in his lone season at Memphis, is an undrafted free agent who can be a receiving threat.

McLaughlin said he embraces the competition that lies ahead.

“Those guys are competitors…I’m excited,” McLaughlin said.

Despite the Broncos’ extensive break before training camp begins in late July, McLaughlin wants to keep working.

He plans to join quarterback Jarrett Stidham and other skill players in Dallas to train next month. But for the most part, he will be in Denver, working with trainers and running through different nature trails.

“I don’t want to come back (to Denver) and have to adjust to the altitude,” McLaughlin said. “I want to stay working at this altitude so I can be the best.”

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