COMMENTARY | Entering his 16th NFL season, fans, players, and coaches know what to expect out of four time MVP Peyton Manning. By adding 100-catch dynamo Wes Welker this offseason from the New England Patriots to compliment emerging pass catchers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, expectations for the Denver Broncos' passing attack have skyrocketed to another level only one season removed from Manning setting new franchise records for completions (400), completion percentage (68.6), passing yards (4,659), touchdown passes (37) and quarterback rating (105.8).
While Manning and Welker have still yet to play a down together on the field, fans in the Mile High City are salivating at the potential of another record shattering passing attack helmed by the reigning AP Comeback Player of the Year.
The situation in the Broncos backfield is a bit murkier at this point with OTAs just underway, but that murkiness has nothing to do with talent or depth. Coming off a season in which the team didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher, Denver has eight backs on the roster looking to establish themselves as essential cogs in an already dynamic offense. Familiar faces like Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, along with younger options like Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, have the backfield in a state of flux.
Will the team transition away from the veteran and oft injured McGahee? Will Moreno continue what was a strong end to the 2012 season after a frustrating and injury prone start to his career? Or might second-year speedster Hillman or rookie Ball receive the lion's share of touches?
If you base the decision purely on overall career production, McGahee would be the pick. But a litany of knee injuries and a $2.5 million salary might leave the veteran grinder on the outside looking in when Denver kicks off its regular season against the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, September 5. At 31, McGahee is also the oldest running back on the roster.
On the flip side the youngest back is 21-year old Hillman, who is entering his second season in Denver. The buzz surrounding Hillman has always focused on his blistering speed and struggles to pass protect, but he has bulked up from 180 to 195 pounds this offseason which could be a clear sign he's committed to improving his all-around game instead of relying purely on quickness.
Drafted in the second round out of Wisconsin where he averaged 134 yards on 24 carries during his final two seasons in Madison, Montee Ball has already earned some first team reps at OTAs. Ball provides a tough, downhill running style that compliments Hillman's slash and burn game. The two young backs might also provide the Broncos with the balance they need to spread the offense for Manning's prolific gun-slinging ways.
The biggest x-factor could be Moreno, who came on strong in McGahee's absence late last season. Expectations have been high for the former Georgia Bulldog since being selected twelfth overall in the 2009 NFL draft, but injuries have temporarily derailed Moreno's burst through the hole to reaching his full potential up to this point. Entering his fifth season in the league, Moreno might be the most complete back on the team with enormous upside should he finally reach his full potential as he hinted late last season.
Of the remaining four backs currently on the roster, Hester likely has the best chance to take the field in a Broncos uniform in 2013. His abilities as a pass catcher, blocker, and short-yardage specialist make him a valuable commodity and his classification as a running back/fullback hybrid sets him apart from his peers in establishing a clear, defined potential role in the offense.
Without a clear cut favorite at this point, touches are expected to be spread around the backfield until head coach John Fox decides on a starter entering the regular season. With the culture on offense around the league shifting away from the single-back system, it's expected the team will retain at least four running backs heading into the season. As always, injuries can throw a wrench into the depth chart, but right now expect Hillman, Ball, and Moreno to work a timeshare until one elevates himself on the field and becomes the clear go-to running back.
With expectations for the Broncos offense sky high heading into the 2013 campaign largely on the arm of Manning, the situation in the backfield is likely to be the key to unlocking the first Super Bowl appearance for the franchise since 1998.
Andrew Majors lives in Denver and is an award-winning journalist who has previously worked as a sports editor, columnist, and freelance digital publisher. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewMajors.
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