Denver Broncos: Examining the Team's Options at Running Back
The Denver Broncos officially placed starting running back Willis McGahee on the recallable injured reserve on Wednesday. While they will be without him for an extended period of time, Denver would be able to get him back should it make a deep playoff run.
This leaves a gaping hole in the Broncos backfield, as McGahee is averaging 4.4 yards per carry on the season and has ran for a total of 731yards. In 25 games in Denver, McGahee has amassed 1,930 yards on the ground. That is already good for 11th place on the team's all-time rushing list.
Denver will now turn to a committee approach as it heads into the final stretch of the season and positions itself for the playoffs.
Here, we will take a closer look at those that will be combining to replace McGahee.
Lance Ball only has 94 yards rushing on the season, but he is very good at doing the things that don't show up in the boxscore.
Ball is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he is a straight-ahead runner that is capable of breaking tackles. He is also the best blocking back that Denver has and should see a lot of work on third down due to that.
Denver was very excited when it selected Ronnie Hillman in the third round of this past April's NFL draft out of San Diego State, and this will be his chance to shine.
Hillman figures to get most of the work going forward, and he has shown signs of being a very good player in limited time this season.
On the year, he has rushed for 188 yards, including 43 yards after McGahee went down Sunday against San Diego. He is also a good pass-catcher, something that is vital with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Hillman's pass-blocking ability will be the big question, as it has not been a strength of his game.
Knowshon Moreno was once the 12th overall pick in the NFL draft. Three years later, he has been made inactive for all but two games this season.
Moreno was being used sparingly when the season started, but he had a costly fumble in Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, and we haven't seen him since.
Now, with McGahee down, Moreno has one more shot to prove he wasn't a waste of a high draft pick. Moreno needs to step up and take advantage of each assignment he's given, whether it be a key block or picking up a tough third down, for this will be his last chance, at least in Denver.
Denver will go into Kansas City this Sunday with the three aforementioned running backs, but they may decide that they need another. If that's the case, one option they have is Jeremiah Johnson, who is currently a member of their practice squad.
Johnson is a quick player who is an above-average receiver, but if the Broncos take him off the practice squad, it would only be to fill a minimal role or for a change of pace if either Ball, Hillman or Moreno struggles.
Of course, Denver could always turn to the free-agent market.
But with McGahee placed on injured reserve with the ability to return, rather than season-ending injured reserve, it wouldn't seem that Denver will offer Slaton a contract, at least not right now.
Aside from Slaton, there's not much on the free-agent market in the way of running backs, at least not a player the Broncos might be interested in.
The Broncos have been firing on all cylinders lately, playing great on both sides of the ball. Following their 30-23 win over San Diego on Sunday, they have a firm grip on the AFC West, one they likely won't relinquish.
Still, McGahee's injury should not be overlooked or taken lightly. It is a big blow for this team, and even though they have Manning playing MVP-caliber football, they can't become one-dimensional against a good team like New England or Houston in the playoffs.
The Broncos enter Week 12 ranked 19th in the league in rushing offense, a category they led the NFL in last season. They will need to improve upon that so teams can't take advantage of Manning with a steady blitz scheme. Against a team like Houston, that would prove to be devastating.
The key for these running backs, aside from picking up yardage on the ground, will be to assist in keeping Manning upright, whether that be chipping on a defensive end or standing strong to pick up a blitzing linebacker or defensive back.
Ball and Moreno should be able to fill in as good role players, but the shoulder of the load is going to fall onto Hillman, and the big question will be if he can handle it or not. If he can, Denver has found its running back for many, many years to come.