Jaleel McLaughlin has come into the NFL and surprised a lot of people with his play-making ability. Through the first five weeks of the season, he is making a push to be the RB2 or at least the third down back in the Denver Broncos’ backfield, and he has been turning heads with his play so far. So who is Jaleel McLaughlin, and how did he get here?
McLaughlin is a North Carolina native who began his college career at Notre Dame College (Ohio), where he became the first-ever player at any level of NCAA football to rush for over 2,000 yards in his first two seasons. He was named the Division II Mountain East Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019. He then transferred to Youngstown State University in 2020, where he split time at running back and still earned Second-Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors. In 2021 he rushed for over 1,000 yards and was named First-Team All-MVFC. In 2022 he was named First-Team All-MVFC by ranking third nationally with 1,588 rushing yards, adding 19 receptions for 300 yards and 15 total touchdowns. He played well in college but was still not a name anyone really knew anything about. At 5’8″ and 187 lbs, many who had heard of him would say he is too small to play in the NFL.
But the Broncos liked what they saw in college and at the combine so much that he was one of the first undrafted players signed after the NFL Draft. From day one in Denver’s training camp, it looked like McLaughlin belonged. He is a slashing runner with good burst, wiggle, and speed. He also has excellent contact balance. However, he still needs to work on two big things: letting run plays develop a little more before deciding to bounce outside and pass protection. He won’t get much playing time in the coming weeks unless he improves in these areas.
Broncos Head Coach Sean Payton raved about McLaughlin all preseason. Payton said all offseason that McLaughlin had earned the opportunity to be in a timeshare with the other two running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine. I thought that was just coach speak coming from Payton, but it has turned out to be a true statement made by him. McLaughlin has seen his workload increase in each game this season. It has also helped that Williams got hurt early in Week 4 and missed the game in Week 5, so McLaughlin was able to step in and fill in for Williams in a big way.
McLaughlin has made the most of his opportunities so far this season. His touches have increased each week, from just one touch in Week 1 to a peak of 12 touches last week, and he is consistently making big plays with the ball in his hands. His stat line through the first five weeks of the season is 22 carries for 160 yards, seven receptions for 46 yards, and three total touchdowns. He has scored receiving touchdowns in each of the last two weeks. Now Williams will be back in Week 6 against the Kansas City Chiefs, so I will be curious to see how Coach Payton splits the workload between the three running backs on Thursday night.
I can’t see any way that the coaches can use Perine more than McLaughlin in the third-down running back role for the rest of the season. McLaughlin has flashed big-play potential every time he touches the ball, and that is something the Broncos are desperately lacking right now from their skill position group. I believe this will be an ugly three-headed running back by committee for the rest of the season. So, unfortunately, it will be hard to start any of these backs with confidence in fantasy for the rest of the season if everyone stays healthy. I would and have stashed McLaughlin away on my benches in most of my Dynasty leagues because I like his upside and big-play ability in this offense. Get him now if he is still available in any of your Dynasty leagues, and if you have an open roster spot in a Redraft league, I would pick him up there as well. Just keep in mind that he may not be produce right away as long as both Williams and Perine are healthy, and he still has flaws in his game.