Entering his third year, running back Knowshon Moreno was consistently ranked as a top-20 RB in preseason fantasy cheat sheets. When news broke out that new coach John Fox was searching for a back to complement Moreno, many were hesitant to draft him, figuring that the team would acquire a big-name star, such as DeAngelo Williams. Ultimately, they signed 30-year-old Willis McGahee, and drafters once again felt good about drafting Moreno as an RB2, despite the possibility of a TD vulture here or there.
Moreno entered the year with an injured hamstring, and amassed only 67 yards in a loss against Oakland. The next week, McGahee took over and recorded over 100 yards in his first start. Since then, he's had two other 100-yard games and has been utilized heavily near the endzone, as well as in between the twenties. Moreno? Not so much.
Following a McGahee injury in Week 7, however, a few things have changed.
Tim Tebow, depending on whom you ask, is either a dual-threat quarterback capable of winning close games, or a decent running back with about as good of a throwing motion as the rest of the running backs on his team. Regardless, if there is one thing we learned from Denver's loss to Detroit, it's that stopping Tebow doesn't take too much imagination.
Aside from an impressive last drive in garbage time, Tebow struggled to pass the ball. What was more disconcerting was how difficult it was for him to run the ball. Since supplanting Orton at halftime against San Diego in Week 5, Tebow has run 29 times for a team-best 189 yards. He managed a season-high 63 yards last week, but was repeatedly stuffed. It wasn't pretty. The Lions provided the blueprint for the rest of the league—load the box and make Tebow beat them through the air.
So, what's the issue? The biggest implication of the loaded-box gameplan that teams are sure to throw at Denver for the rest of the year, is that tough, head-down running will be limited, considering that defenses don't have a lot to worry about in terms of deep passes. McGahee has shown some ability to catch the ball, but if any back is going to catch passes out of the backfield and be used in screens, it will be Moreno.
Knowshon has not shown a consistent ability to run between the tackles, and is clearly a better outside-the-tackles, pass-catching, speed back. Denver will have to turn to this gameplan because Tebow shows no signs of being able to throw the ball downfield, and teams will focus on loading defenders in to stop both McGahee and Tebow.
There is no denying that Willis McGahee has played better than Moreno thus far. Although he only has two touchdowns (one running and one receiving), he has amassed 460 yards on 103 carries, with an impressive 4.5 YPC.
The injury sustained to his right hand, however, is an issue, considering that it's his ball-holding hand. The 30-year-old McGahee is ancient in terms of running backs, and although he has not been used as frequently as other backs his age, it's not too bold of a prediction that if they continue to give him the ball 20-25 times a game, he will begin to slow and break down.
Moreno has significant injury concerns of his own, but if he's used properly, he will not be exposed to the same kind of running that could easily break McGahee down.
If you saw Knowshon's 28-yard TD reception against San Diego, you may have seen a flash of something that has been repeatedly called into question. His potential. It was not, by any means, a Fox-ian, punch-the-ball-until-the-defense-is-dead play—it was a screen out of the shotgun. Moreno caught the ball and, thanks in part to some good blocking and a missed tackle or two, made it into the endzone.
It is easier to call Knowshon one-dimensional than a complete back, but if he can improve even slightly in the run-game, it isn't unbelievable that he may become one of the better double-threats in the league. Some may point to a disappointing game against Detroit—a game in which he could have proven himself as the starter, but it was a tough one. The team did not run plays that were made for Moreno, as some expected, considering how they shook up the playbook for Tebow. He's capable of breaking the big run on every play, and if he can find a way to do so once or twice per game, it would be hard to imagine the Broncos not giving him more carries.
Fred Jackson, Ray Rice and Matt Forte. What do these RBs have in common? They are very capable runners, surely, and they are head-and-shoulders above Knowshon in terms of ability to run within the line and break tackles. In addition to that, however, they are very good receivers, and they all do incredible amounts of damage when they can get going in either (or both) categories. It's not likely that Moreno reaches their numbers consistently, but it is becoming more apparent that this is the mold of the new top-10 RB.
Knowshon has plenty to prove, and it would be a risky play to drop McGahee and expect Moreno to take over without any sort of fight, but is he worth a roster spot? Definitely, and he may emerge as a great RB2 yet.
As a new coach, John Fox is looking to win. He is not going to, at any point, give up on the season and try to develop players if it means losing game after game. Some argue that starting Tebow defies this logic, but I believe he thinks Tebow gives him his best chance to win, or at least someone in the organization does.
At which point, however, will Fox decide to continue to pound the ball with a 30-year-old injured back who may or may not produce at a high level next season? Fox is not in any real danger of losing his job, but the idea is that if he loses many games next year, he might be. Developing Moreno is just as important as developing Tebow, and if the two are the future of the organization, there will be a point—maybe sooner rather than later—that Moreno gets to shoulder the load, not only to develop as a runner, but to develop a rapport (as a receiver out of the backfield and as a pass-protector) with Tebow.