“It’s never easy to part ways with a veteran player who made so many positive contributions to our team and community,” executive vice president of football operations John Elway said in a statement, as reported by The Denver Post's Jeff Logwold.
McGahee, 31, signed with the Broncos in the offseason of 2011 and rushed for 1,199 yards in his first season with the club. After he struggled with fumbles and injuries during his second season, however, the Broncos determined it was time to move on from the veteran running back.
"He was an integral part of our turnaround during the past two seasons, and I wish him the best as he continues his NFL career," concluded Elway.
To McGahee's credit, he was effective early in his time with the Broncos.
McGahee struggled with fumbles at times last season. But what he did the previous season against a 9-man box, tremendous.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) June 13, 2013
In his first season in Denver, McGahee worked with quarterback Tim Tebow and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to make the Broncos offense work with as little passing as possible.
As a result, Denver's offense mastered the zone-read run, something that came roaring back into style across the NFL last season. In a way, McGahee had a big hand in the return of the read-option offense.
McGahee also learned the read-option ON THE FLY. Never ran that offense before. He became a force in that offense. Smart player.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) June 13, 2013
McGahee's 1,000-yard performance (his first since 2007 with the Baltimore Ravens) landed him on NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2012 list.
Unfortunately for McGahee, the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" world. While his first season in Denver was tremendous, his second year with the team was less than satisfactory.
McGahee started the season relatively well, rushing for 731 yards in 10 games (nine starts). But he fumbled five times throughout the season, often at crucial moments.
Additionally, McGahee suffered a torn right MCL and right lower leg fracture in Week 11 in a 30-23 win over the San Diego Chargers. The injury caused him to miss the remaining six games of the season and Denver's playoff game against Baltimore.
It was clear that McGahee was slowing down, and after the Broncos selected Wisconsin running back Montee Ball in the second round of the NFL draft (58th overall) in April, the writing was on the wall.
Willis McGahee to me on being released by the #Broncos: "I knew it was going to happen. It is what it is. They are going younger."— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) June 13, 2013
It didn't help McGahee's case when he skipped "voluntary" OTAs earlier this offseason, citing family reasons. In his absence, Denver's coaching staff divvied up first-team reps to second-year running back Ronnie Hillman and Ball. Fifth-year running back Knowshon Moreno has not yet been cleared to participate at minicamp while he recovers from a knee injury he suffered last season
Signing with a divisional rival like the Raiders or Chargers could serve as a form of revenge for McGahee. ESPN Denver NFL Insider and B/R contributor Cecil Lammey notes San Diego as a potential team that may be interested in his services.
The Broncos have an open roster spot open after McGahee's release. Lammey has speculated that the team may take a look at former Baltimore Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, who would be a good fit in Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme. But that's another story for another time.
McGahee was owed base salaries of $2.5 million in 2013 and $2 million in 2014, according to Spotrac.com. Denver is no longer bound to those figures, freeing up $4.5 million in cap room.
But McGahee's $2 million 2011 signing bonus was spread out in $500,000 increments to count against Denver's cap in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, meaning McGahee's $500,000 bounces in '13 and '14 will put a $1 million hit against Denver's salary cap.
The 2013 salary cap is $123 million, and after taking a $1 million hit for McGahee's release (and freeing up an additional $2.5 million), the Broncos have $7,838,635 in 2013 dead money. As of today, the team still has $12,433,631 in available salary-cap space (per Spotrac.com).
More space is expected to be created after the possible future releases of players including linebacker Joe Mays and guard Chris Kuper, but once again, that's a story for another day.
As far as the Broncos' running back situation goes, contrary to popular belief, this does not clear the way for Ball to win the starting job right off the bat. Hillman already has a year of experience under his belt, and he is unofficially the write-in No. 1 running back as of now with Moreno still recovering from knee surgery.
But Hillman is not an every-down back, so while the job is his to lose, he will indeed likely lose it. Expect Moreno to emerge as the Week 1 starter after filling in well for an injured McGahee well last season.
Eventually, Ball will emerge as the feature back in Denver's offense. But the Broncos are not going to give him more than he can handle.
The other Ball in Denver's backfield—Lance Ball—will also be competing for a roster spot this summer. If the Broncos go with four running backs, the elder Ball may be the odd man out, because fullback hybrid Jacob Hester figures to make the team due to his versatility.
A backfield including a rotation of Moreno, Montee Ball, Hillman and Hester may be what the Broncos expect to take the field with in Week 1. They open the NFL season on September 5 at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
Regardless of who emerges as Denver's starter going into 2013, the only thing we know for sure is that it will not be Willis McGahee, as it had been the past two seasons.