McGahee rushed for 1,199 yards and made the Pro Bowl for the Broncos in 2011. Denver's executive vice president of football operations John Elway had this to say about the move:
It’s never easy to part ways with a veteran player who made so many positive contributions to our team and community. I appreciate all of the competitiveness, toughness and leadership Willis brought to the Broncos. He was an integral part of our team’s turnaround during the past two seasons, and I wish him the best as he continues his NFL career.
McGahee's release doesn't clear up the question of who Denver's starting running back will be for the first week of this season. It merely reduces the number of legitimate candidates from four to three. The men in training camp who should have a shot at the job are Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball who the Broncos selected in the second round of this year's draft.
Moreno made a case for himself toward the end of last season, when he stepped in for the injured McGahee, running for 510 yards over the team's last six games. That stretch included back-to-back weeks over 115 yards against the Raiders and Ravens (both on the road).
For the first time in his career, Moreno looked determined to hit the holes his offensive line was opening up for him, instead of dancing in the backfield, trying to avoid being hit.
Despite only appearing in eight games, 2012 may be considered a bounce back year for the former first-round draft pick. Moreno showed promise in his rookie season when he ran for 947 yards. But he quickly fell out of favor with Denver coach John Fox and carried the ball just 37 times in 2011.
Bursting back onto the scene in 2012 helped his chances for this year, but an offseason knee surgery puts him behind Hillman and Ball. He has been seen running routes on the knee that's given him trouble since he tore his ACL in 2011, but he's definitely at a disadvantage in the competition against guys who've been active participants in OTAs.
One of those guys is the youngest Bronco on the roster, 21-year-old Ronnie Hillman. During his rookie season last year, the speedy Hillman showed flashes of great potential, but was just too small (180 pounds at the end of 2012) to hold a really significant role.
He gained 15 pounds this offseason, and according to Broncos blogger Stuart Zaas, has shown great improvement as a blocker. His inability to block last year was one of the things that kept him off the field in potential passing situations.
That isn't the only area in which Hillman has made strides. Mike Klis of the Denver Post recently said, "It also appears Hillman is faster this year, more explosive through the hole. Drafted as a speed back, Hillman is making more decisive cuts." If he really is faster than the 4.45-second 40 that he ran coming out of college, Hillman could break a lot of long runs this year.
Klis also said that if the season were to start today, Hillman would be the starter. Right now, he's the leader in the clubhouse.
The guy who might catch him at some point in the season is Montee Ball. The former Heisman candidate ran for 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns over his junior and senior seasons at Wisconsin. He also had six touchdown receptions during his nearly Heisman-worthy junior year. During his career as a Badger, he averaged nearly six yards per carry.
During OTAs, Ball is already getting reps with Peyton Manning and the first-team offense. He is a more complete back than Hillman, who in spite of his improvements, is still mostly a speed specialist.
Ball doesn't have Hillman's speed (he ran a 4.66-second 40 at this year's combine), but he's a more powerful back who can absorb contact and will likely average more yards after the first hit than Hillman. He may also already be more trustworthy in passing situations as a blocker and receiver.
Hillmans' experience may win out for now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Montee Ball move into the starting role by about midway through the season.
1: Ronnie Hillman
2: Montee Ball
3: Knowshon Moreno
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