Denver Broncos: Will Willis McGahee Be Week 1 Starter?
The Denver Broncos have a crowded backfield situation.
That's putting it at as lightly as possible.
The Broncos have six backs on the current roster who will compete for playing time entering 2013—second-round draft selection Montee Ball, 2012 third-round draft selection Ronnie Hillman, former first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno, nine-year NFL veteran Willis McGahee, hybrid fullback/halfback/tight end Jacob Hester and veteran Lance Ball.
Four out of those six players have legit chances at starting for the Broncos versus the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 in September—those players are Montee, Hillman, Moreno and McGahee.
McGahee recently returned to the Broncos after having skipped voluntary OTAs for Denver's mandatory minicamp this week.
The reason why this is news in the first place is because the University of Miami product made a bold proclamation upon his return—he expects to be the Week 1 starter.
According to USA Today's Lindsay Jones, McGahee said on Tuesday that he "expects to be the Week 1 starting running back."
The veteran would end up taking a couple of snaps on Tuesday during practice, as he slowly gains more and more reps in catching up with the offense after having missed OTAs and the last two months of the season due to a season-ending knee injury.
It isn't surprising that McGahee would have confidence that he'll be the starting running back entering 2013—or at least give the impression that he's confident. What else is he supposed to say? That he faces an uphill battle and that either of Denver's two young running backs—Montee and Hillman—will be the likely starter entering the regular season?
Since the UM product believes he'll be the starting running back come Week 1, what are his actual chances of making that proclamation a reality?
The fact that both Montee and Hillman got favorable reviews during OTAs is nothing to sneeze at—both of the young backs took advantage of the first-team reps they gained due to Willis' absence and Moreno's lengthy recovery from injury.
In that very same article from Mike Klis of the The Denver Post, he goes on to state that "Hillman would start if the season started today." He goes on to further note, however, that when the season actually does begin, he's "more likely to be an 8-to-12-carry type" player.
It's three months away from the regular season, with minicamp not even having reached it's conclusion and with training camp more than a month away. So a lot can change from now until September, when the Ravens pay the Broncos a visit in Denver.
But as of right now, all signs point to Hillman and Montee having the inside track in winning the starting job.
According to independent analyst Andrew Mason (via DenverBroncos.com), Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase had this to say about McGahee's chances under the current situation:
“Ignore him? We’re not going to ignore him. I mean we’re trying to get him in here, get him familiar again," Gase said. "We’ve had some changes in some of the things we’ve done on offense and he’s just trying to get used to what we’re doing.”
The fact is, McGahee is Denver's most proven and experienced runner—in fact, he's the only proven runner.
Which leads into the next category to consider.
McGahee is the only proven workhorse back on this roster. That is a fact that cannot be denied.
Despite the numerous knee injuries suffered during his collegiate and pro career, during his seven of nine seasons in the NFL, he has started at least half of the season—and in five of those seasons, he carried the ball at least 249 times.
He has been a featured back in Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver.
Montee is a rookie. So although he was a workhorse back at the University of Wisconsin, it remains to be seen how he'll hold up to the pro game.
Hillman has beefed up a little from his rookie season, now weighing in at 195 pounds on his 5'9" frame, but he's still better equipped as a change-of-pace back rather than a feature back. The San Diego State product carried the ball 85 times for 330 yards in the 14 games he played in.
His most carries in a single game came in the divisional playoff contest versus the Ravens, after Moreno exited the game due to injury. The speedy back carried the ball 22 times for 83 yards on 3.8 yards a carry.
Moreno is the one back other than McGahee to have been a starting running back in the NFL. A first-round selection of the Josh McDaniels regime in 2009, Moreno started the first two seasons of his career—to limited success. During his first two seasons, the University of Georgia product had just one 100-yard game rushing in 29 games played.
Hester and the other Ball—Lance—have never come close and won't be seriously considered as full-time backs entering the season.
When it pertains to production and proven history, no running back on Denver's roster comes close to McGahee
Organization support is the backing of the franchise. It's your chances as a player on the team based on what coaches are saying and on a number of traits—your age, your size, your abilities and how you fit what the team needs, and how you fit in the offensive system.
Moreno has had his fair share of support by the current regime, but there's no doubt that of the four key running backs, he's at the bottom of the list in this category. Whereas the three other backs were all acquisitions under the John Elway regime, Moreno remains the one back who was a product of the previous regime.
McGahee is above Moreno in this pecking order because he was a signing of John Elway/John Fox during the 2011 offseason. Despite being 31 years of age and having suffered numerous serious knee injuries over the course of the past 10 years—Elway showed him a signal of support right before the NFL draft in April.
Elway: "With where we are right now, McGahee is that big back for us right now, Hillman is ... change of pace guy.'— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) April 22, 2013
However, Ball and Hillman are clearly the current darlings of the organization, having youth on their side—Ball is 22 years of age, with Hillman at 21 years of age—and the fact that Elway and Fox drafted these two young backs with the intention of featuring them prominently in the offense.
McGahee could easily be the starter come Week 1—he's the only proven full-time back on the roster, he's come back from serious injuries before, he's unexpectedly risen to starter in Denver during his first season with the team, and he has the backing of the organization.
Having said that, the veteran entering his 10th NFL season has a hill to climb if he expects to be Denver's starting running back for the third consecutive season.
McGahee has the edge over Moreno for the starting job—Moreno has been adequate at best as a runner during his NFL career, with McGahee averaging 4.4 yards a carry in 2012 in comparison to Moreno's 3.8 yards per carry. But Moreno has a better chance of sticking around if both guys lose the bid to start.
Will Wills McGahee be Denver's Week 1 Starter at Running Back?
But the inside track—as mentioned earlier in the article—belongs to Montee and Hillman. It's their job to lose.
One of the few ways McGahee can regain his starting job is if the young backs hit a "rookie wall" or "sophomore slump" and have trouble handling the pressure of being a full-time back.
That, along with a strong training camp and preseason from the veteran McGahee, would give the nod to the longtime running back.
It's an uphill battle, but if there's anybody who's done it countless times before, it's the guy who went on to have a successful NFL career in spite of tearing his ACL, PCL and MCL in the same game.
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