By Rich Kurtzman
Without Willis McGahee, the Broncos are missing their workhorse.
McGahee, the 31-year-old that has carried the load for Denver over the last two seasons, partially tore his MCL in the second quarter of the team’s win over San Diego last Sunday. Luckily for McGahee and the Broncos, the MRI showed the ligament wasn’t completely torn, meaning it won’t require surgery and he’s hopeful to return in 4-6 weeks, though doctors believe it will be more like 6-8 weeks. The 6′ 235 pound running back has been enjoying a late-career resurgence in the Mile High City, gaining 1,930 yards with eight touchdowns since 2011 and he’s a solid blocker on the blitz pick up. But he’s also had difficulties with holding onto the ball, losing four fumbles in 10 games this season alone.
Behind McGahee on the Broncos bench is a stable of young runners that will have to step their respective games up.
Ronnie Hillman has been the No. 2 back behind McGahee, and the rookie has a ton of speed. Hillman, at 5’9” 200 pounds, uses his explosive ability to burst down the sidelines and has been close to breaking some big runs as of late, racking up 188 yards and one score. But some are worried he’s too small to pick up blocks as consistently as he needs to, meaning Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno may get more playing time ahead of Hillman.
Ball is a bruiser, at 5’9” 215 pounds, able to push through the line between the tackles and make sack-saving blocks when blitzers bust through. He’s gained 94 yards on the ground and Ball also has good hands, with seven receptions for 61 yards and one score this year.
Of course, the wildcard is fourth-year running back Moreno. Moreno went from the starter in 2010, to the backup last year and inactive for almost every game this season. Considering how little he’s played, the 5’11” 200 pound back should have fresh legs and he’s proven as a blocker and receiver. But where he’s never lived up to his potential is running the rock, averaging only 4.1 yards per carry over his career and is not able to break the long runs to the house. Ball and Hillman will almost certainly get more playing time, at least at first, but Moreno will get an opportunity in the backfield, his last chance to prove himself worthy of continuing to play in the NFL.
And really, every one of the Broncos’ running backs should have motivation to run well. Ball’s never really had a shot with a consistent amount of carries—he will show he can run the ball. Hillman is still a rookie trying to prove he’s an NFL-caliber runner, which means much more than just taking the ball outside the tackles. For Moreno, many believe this is his last chance to make something happen, at least with the Broncos. Something says he’ll find a way to make something positive happen.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.