With the release of Willis McGahee last week reportedly due to concerns over his health, per Paul Klee of The Gazette, and the Broncos' desire to go younger at the running back position, the running back competition just got a lot clearer.
The stage has been set for young backs Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball to take over the starting running back position for the departed McGahee.
As it stands, the Broncos have seven total running backs on the roster—the aforementioned Hillman and Ball, to go along with Knowshon Moreno, Jacob Hester, Lance Ball, C.J. Anderson and Jeremiah Johnson.
Coach John Fox echoed statements of confidence when pertaining to the Broncos' young backfield crowd, singling out in particular Hillman, Montee and Moreno. Per Brandon Moree of DenverBroncos.com:
"I think anytime you pick your team, or begin to pick your team, you're showing faith in those people," Head Coach John Fox said. "I thought Ronnie (Hillman) came on very well last year. I've been impressed by Montee Ball-not that he's there yet by any stretch. And then we've got Knowshon (Moreno), who is also coming off of an injury, who we feel pretty good about."
McGahee was Denver's starting running back over the past two seasons. It was not until an injury suffered in a late November contest versus the San Diego Chargers did McGahee lose his starting job.
The running back that took over the starting position after McGahee's injury?
None other than Knowshon Moreno.
The four-year veteran had a resurgence of sorts after taking over the starting position, even being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in a 34-17 victory for the Broncos over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15, when he had his second straight 100-yard-rushing game.
With McGahee's release, what does that say about Moreno's chances at the running back position entering training camp?
Chances of Starting at Running Back
Moreno didn't have eye-popping statistics running the football—in fact, he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2012.
But during his four starts in between the time of McGahee's injury and being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 15, Moreno averaged 121.6 yards from the line of scrimmage—second-best in the league during that time frame, only behind NFL MVP Adrian Peterson.
Which says something about Moreno—it's his versatility.
Moreno has never been an impressive runner. Since entering the league in 2009 as a highly touted first-round draft pick out of the University of Georgia, he has averaged just 4.0 yards a carry on 604 attempts.
During his first thee years in the league before his resurgent 2012 season, the University of Georgia product had just one 100-yard game rushing the football despite starting 24 games in that span.
So with the release of the Broncos' other veteran running back, where does that leave Moreno in the discussion of Denver's starting running back position?
Barring something unexpected that happens during training camp and the preseason, it's expected to be a three-headed race between the likes of rookie Ball, second-year man Hillman and the veteran Moreno.
Despite Moreno's advantages over the two young backs in terms of versatility and experience, the Broncos basically have a carved out plan for either Ball or Hillman to start.
During OTAs and minicamp, Broncos players and coaches couldn't say enough about the two young backs during the Broncos' first offseason workouts.
"We're just kind of going through plays, going through games, getting him comfortable hearing audibles at the line of scrimmage. Because we are going to count on him in a big way this year," Manning said. "He's a rookie, but coach (John) Fox isn't going to bring him along slowly."
Because it's not likely that Moreno starts in 2013, where does that leave his chances of making the Broncos' roster in comparison to the rest of Denver's backfield?
Chances of Making the 53-Man Roster
The Broncos won't cut Montee Ball. That's a given. Hillman is virtually a lock to make the roster, too.
Which leaves Moreno and the four other running backs on the Broncos' roster—Hester, Lance Ball, Anderson and Johnson—to fight over the bottom of the depth chart at the running back position.
For most of last season, the Broncos carried five running backs—when including fullback Chris Gronkowski, who played mostly on the special teams units throughout 2012.
At the start of 2012, the Broncos had five running backs on the active roster—McGahee, Hillman, Moreno, Ball (Lance) and Gronkowski.
After the first two weeks of the season, Hillman was active on game days, while Moreno was inactive up until McGahee's season-ending knee injury in Week 11 against the Chargers, when Denver made him the starting running back over a still-developing Hillman and Ball.
So during a long stretch of the season, the Broncos had five running backs on the roster. Even after McGahee's injury, the Broncos still had five backs on the roster, as they signed Jacob Hester.
It's a definite possibility that they do the same in 2013, although the certain number stands at four. Gronkowski—although listed as a back—was kept around purely for special teams purposes.
So what does that mean for Moreno?
Ball (Lance) looks to be the definite odd man out. A signing of the Josh McDaniels regime, Ball has been with the Broncos organization for four years now. With Denver adding two young backs through the draft over the past two years, it doesn't look likely that Ball returns to the Broncos' roster with his peak having been reached already.
That takes one man out of the equation.
Which leaves Anderson, Hester and Johnson.
All three guys have decent chances of making the roster.
Hester is 28-years-old—but he's not a guy the Broncos will look toward to be a full-time back—ever. He had a solid short season for the Broncos after being signed in November, rushing for 55 yards on seven carries in Denver's Week 17 victory over the Chiefs.
With McGahee gone, the Broncos will look for Hester to be a goal-line and short-yardage back—especially with the smallish Hillman and Moreno in the mix.
Anderson is a rookie free agent, while Johnson was on the Broncos' 2011 roster during the regular season and postseason. Both could be sleeper candidates, depending upon how they perform in July and August.
With two young backs in Anderson and Johnson, with a guy (Hester) who could prove to be the difference between getting a touchdown or a field goal in goal-line situations, will Moreno make the roster?
Will Moreno Make the Roster?
Despite his shortcomings as a runner—Moreno is a superb blocker with a knack for making plays as a receiver.
Although he'll likely never shed his first-round bust label, and he is not what Broncos fans expected him to be when Coach McDaniels drafted him with the 12th overall pick four years ago, that doesn't mean the veteran isn't a valuable piece to have on a team.
Which brings me to my conclusion—Moreno should make the Broncos' roster.
Barring another injury—which is a possibility, because he's had two serious injuries in his short NFL career—a terrible performance during preseason, or show-stealing preseasons by Denver's two sleeper candidates, Johnson and Anderson, Moreno will have a place on the Broncos' roster in 2013.
Denver will keep four running backs—with Ball and Hillman locks, and Hester likely having a role in the offense—with Moreno as the other back.
Because Denver's top two running backs are young, and still learning the offense and nuances of being NFL players, Denver needs to retain a veteran to keep the ship steady when things get difficult.
We saw what happened after Moreno left the Baltimore game in the divisional playoffs due to his knee injury—the Broncos looked like a completely different team, as the offense slowed down en route to a 38-35 loss.
Although Hillman had a solid game subbing in for Moreno—he protected the ball and had 22 carries for 83 yards—the Broncos clearly missed Moreno's ability to protect Manning as a passer and his contributions as a receiver out of the backfield.
In fact, Moreno had a receiving touchdown in that same game.
When Ball and Hillman struggle with protecting Manning—which they will—this is where having Moreno will be a valuable asset.
Due to Denver's situation where it is likely to go with the two young backs to lead the backfield, it will be hard for Anderson and Johnson to make the roster. It will take outstanding training camps for either of the two to make Denver's roster, as Denver doesn't have a problem at youth in the backfield now that McGahee is gone.
The more likely scenario is Anderson makes the practice squad after a solid training camp, with Johnson being let go after three years in the organization.
Which means that the former first-round draft pick will survive for one more year in the Mile High City.