The Denver Broncos are still looking for their No. 1 running back, and it sounds like they are going to make two or three running backs share playing time. The contenders are Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno. Each has his own set of strengths and weaknesses.
The running-back-by-committee approach that is unfolding will make fantasy players squirm, but it could actually work for the Broncos’ offense. Snaps will be split based on the strengths of each player and the opponent.
The fourth preseason game is the final week before the Broncos will have to decide how to split carries, so there is considerable value in the game if the running backs get an opportunity to play.
The Running Game
Although secondary to the passing game in Denver’s offense, running the ball is still important. If the Broncos build a lead, they need a running back who can grind out yards and burn through the clock.
An effective ground game is also important to keep the defense honest. If the Broncos can make the safeties think about the run, they are going to have more opportunities in the passing game.
Since the Broncos will likely use 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) most of the time, the running backs are going to have the opportunity to run the ball against a defensive front of six instead of seven. The Broncos must be able to take advantage of these favorable conditions.
Last season, Broncos running backs carried the ball 449 times. It’s hard to imagine that number going up significantly with the addition of Wes Welker. In 2004, when Peyton Manning had three 1,000-yard receivers, his running backs carried the ball just 402 times.
The expectation should be that the running backs are splitting between 400 and 450 carries in 2013.
The competition for carries has mostly been between Hillman and Ball. So far this preseason, Ball is averaging 3.2 yards per carry on 25 carries and Hillman 3.5 yards per carry on 22 carries. Neither is performing well enough to carry the load and keep Moreno from sneaking back into the conversation.
Moreno has carried the ball only 11 times, mostly against backups, but he is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Last season, Moreno averaged 3.9 yards per carry once he was named the starter. McGahee averaged 4.4 yards per carry, just above league average.
The other thing to consider is ball security. Hillman fumbled twice on 84 attempts last year, but that was actually less frequently than McGahee last year. However, Hillman’s ball-security issues continue to be a problem, and McGahee was released. Moreno fumbled just once in 139 snaps last year.
Ball is the really interesting case because he fumbled just twice in college on 924 attempts. One of Ball’s two fumbles came when he intentionally exposed the ball attempting to stretch for the touchdown.
Ideally, the Broncos could get production like McGahee with the added benefit of ball security. Each turnover is worth approximately four points, which is why teams are so reluctant to give carries to players with ball-security issues.
Given his excellent ball security, Ball might end up getting most of the carries as long as he is decently productive. Last year, the Broncos’ starting running backs carried the ball 68.7 percent of the time, but that could come down considerably in 2013.
Ball will probably see the most carries early and end up with around 175 to 225 carries. Hillman will probably see between 125 and 175 carries, depending on his ability to hold onto the ball. That leaves Moreno between 50 and 100 carries as the third running back, but he would be the most likely to see his role increased if Hillman or Ball were hurt.
The Passing Game
The Broncos will obviously pass a lot in 2013, but they will still probably leave a running back on the field. That running back can either run a pattern or stay in to protect Manning, so they need to be able to pass protect and catch passes.
A lot of people assume that Ball’s struggles this preseason in pass protection will keep him off the field in those situations, and that’s probably true, but he also isn’t a great receiver. Ball caught just 59 passes in his college career, just six percent of all his touches.
Some running backs just aren’t asked to run pass patterns or pass protect. There are obviously times when Ball could be put in that situation if Manning changes a run to a pass play, but that would probably be a rarity.
You would think that Hillman would be a prime candidate to take this role. Even though he didn’t catch many passes in college, the Broncos made it a point to get him the ball in space a few times last year to try to use his speed.
Hillman did fine in pass protection when given the opportunity last year, but he has still struggled at times. Given his upside over Moreno, the Broncos are likely to give Hillman the job on third down.
Hillman could start and get more snaps than Ball but actually have fewer carries. The offense wouldn’t want to get too predictable, but that’s pretty much how a running-back-by-committee approach works. The New England Patriots are a good example of a great offense that uses the committee approach.
Obviously, that leaves Moreno without a significant role in the offense. Where Moreno benefits the team is his ability to do everything. If Hillman or Ball struggle in their roles, Moreno will be there for steady production.
Say Hillman fumbles or is struggling in pass protection. Moreno could get the call while Hillman proves his worth in practice. If Ball were to get hurt, the Broncos could give more carries to Moreno if they didn’t want to expose Hillman to inside carries, where he might fumble.
Why not just start Moreno? It’s about upside. The Broncos know Moreno, and he’s not going to get much better, but Hillman and Ball could with playing time.
The Broncos want to put Ball in pass protection and make Hillman carry the ball between the tackles so they can learn during the preseason, but when the regular season arrives things will change. The regular season is about minimizing weaknesses and maximizing strengths.
It can be a lot harder to earn the trust of coaches in limited practice reps during the season, so the final preseason game could be their best chance to make a big impression—if head coach John Fox decides to play them.