Peyton Manning don't need no stinkin' running back.
The Broncos offense is just fine, as witnessed in two straight preseason games that showed the unit not missing a beat from last season and its quarterback nearly in midseason form from square one. Yes, it's just the preseason, but Manning went toe-to-toe with a fantastic San Francisco 49ers defense, going 12-of-14 for 102 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos won that exhibition, 34-0.
Much hemming and hawing has been heard this offseason about the Broncos running back position. It wasn't exactly panic due to the loss of Knowshon Moreno (now with the Miami Dolphins), but maybe it was an overreaction to the embarrassing 43-8 Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
In that game, the Seahawks defensive backs harassed the Broncos receivers—as they had every other receiving corps in 2013—and held the Broncos to only 27 yards rushing on 14 attempts (1.9-yard average).
The moral of the story can't be that the Broncos need an elite running game, it just can't. The Seahawks weren't only a top pass defense last season—they dominated against the run all season long (ranking seventh—tied with Denver) and did so against teams with solid running games. So, there's little evidence that Denver would've had any better luck with a more powerful in-line attack.
All that said, it's nearly impossible to establish the run when a team punches you in the mouth like Seattle did to Denver. Instead, I would posit that the Broncos offense isn't in need of anything, and the concern about Montee Ball's appendix or any other storyline regarding the Broncos backfield is just fodder for talking heads.
Frankly, the Broncos are set up for even more offensive success this season and could be even better than in 2013.
The Broncos offense isn't missing anything.
Understand that football is not played on paper.
See, on paper, it's OK to look at a depth chart like the Broncos and start making checkmarks across the board. We're used to this with fantasy football, where we can say things like, "Well, I'm getting a lot of production from my QB, but I need a few more points from my running back." It makes sense because it's logical—an offense with average rushing was epic, so an offense with an epic rushing attack is going to be, uh, super epic.
The problem is, though, snaps make game-planning a little like a zero-sum game. Anytime Manning is handing the ball off, he isn't throwing strikes down the field. Yes, in a perfect world, a facet of the offense can complement another, but one doesn't simply take the game out of Manning's hands.
So, what are the Broncos working with?
We know the Broncos have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, but the fact that it is so versatile and well-rounded makes this unit even more dangerous than it appears.
First, Demaryius Thomas, the legit No. 1 target with speed, size and leaping ability. When all else fails, Manning can squeeze the ball into a tight window and expect Thomas not only to come down with it but to make a play after the catch as well.
Wes Welker is still the paradigm when it comes to a complementary/slot receiver. He can handle a ridiculously high volume of passes and is fearless going over the middle. He takes some criticism about his drops, but few receivers could make the contested, quick-pass catches that he brings in regularly.
Emmanuel Sanders is the big addition this season and takes over for Eric Decker, who went to the New York Jets. Sanders offers a big-play component that Decker could not and actually allows Thomas to slip into more intermediate routes as Sanders takes the top off of opponents' coverage, increasing the number of high-quality targets all around.
No discussion of Manning's receiving targets would be complete without a full look at tight end Julius Thomas. At 6'5" and 246 pounds, running a 4.68 40-yard dash and boasting a 35.5-inch vertical, Thomas is one of the most physically imposing targets in the game.
One way to look at Thomas' contributions is to consider the three receiver roles listed above and realize he does a little bit of all of that. He's faster than most safeties and can run over linebackers, so he not only takes the top off the defense but can carve out the middle as well. His ridiculous wingspan allows him to win almost any jump ball thrown his way.
Still, Thomas can be even better. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wrote the following about Thomas while grading him out as the fifth-best tight end of last season:
Not much was expected when evaluating Thomas as a route-runner, but he impressed with great agility and an understanding of space and positioning. His basketball background is easy to see when he’s using his length and bulk to shade defenders from the football. He’ll need to work more on timing his breaking routes, but the athleticism shown is unreal.
The need to work on timing with Manning is a surefire way to ensure rep after rep of practice in an offseason, and it looks like it has paid off. Against the 49ers, Thomas caught all three of his targets for 35 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown, an arching pass over the top of the defense, was a perfect example of these two developing chemistry. Thomas barely had to break stride with the pass dropping right into his breadbasket.
With those weapons in place, the Broncos don't really need anything else. They don't need a running attack when Welker can take a "handoff" (read: a quick slant) and turn it into an easy gain. The Broncos don't need someone to make linebackers pay when Thomas and Thomas are consistently streaking over the middle and delivering just as many hits as they take. Manning doesn't need a breather when he is content with this tremendous passing attack around him and with making as many passing attempts as he possibly can.
It is more than reasonable to suggest that the Broncos' best personnel group doesn't even include a running back. A four-wide set with the three aforementioned receivers and Julius Thomas (split out or at tight end) is almost assuredly a group head coach John Fox wants on the field as much as possible. After that, tight ends Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme offer just as much to the offense as Ball or Ronnie Hillman might.
I'm not advocating that the Broncos eliminate the run game altogether, but I am suggesting we stop talking so much about it. Frankly, Manning and this offense are going to be just fine.