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Denver Broncos Could Wind Up Missing Waived Willis McGahee

Veteran Back's Toughness, Veteran Presence Won't Be Easy to Replace

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | So the Denver Broncos have parted ways with veteran running back Willis McGahee.

No real surprise -- at least for anyone paying the least bit of attention to the Broncos' wheelings and dealings over the past 15 months.

In that span, the franchise has spent second- (Montee Ball) and third-round (Ronnie Hillman) draft picks on running backs, kept fellow running back Knowshon Moreno around when it had several occasions to cut him loose and added versatile back Jacob Hester via free agency.

All the above made the soon-to-be 32-year-old McGahee, his recent injury issues, his voluntary workout no-shows and -- last but not least -- his $2.5 million salary expendable.

Many thought a decision wouldn't come until training camp, but with the indelible writing already on a billboard-sized wall, the Broncos decided to head off the drama, cut bait now and move on. Again, no surprise -- particularly in a league where 30-plus-year-old running backs are as rare as tranquil days in the Middle East.

But none of this is to say McGahee won't be missed in the Mile High City this coming season.

The been-there, did-that, football-wise vet has led the Broncos in rushing in each of the past two seasons and provided hard-nosed toughness to a roster that's needed every bit of it.

That much was evident with the running back's injury absence from the Broncos' most recent game: January's divisional-round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Orange and Blue averaged a paltry 3 yards per rushing attempt on 41 carries in the 38-35, double-overtime loss and were stymied on no fewer than six short-yardage (3 yards or fewer) plays in the second half and overtime.

And even though it's a whole new team now, is it that hard to remember that McGahee, whose 2011 off-season signing was almost an afterthought, was one of the unsung heroes of the Broncos' magical 2011 run with QB Tim Tebow, rushing for 1,199 yards after stepping in for the injured Moreno two games into the season?

It's nice to reminisce, but that's all ancient history to the Broncos, whose running-game present and future are Ball and Hillman.

Ball, who led the FBS with 3,753 rushing yards and 63 touchdowns over the past two seasons at Wisconsin, is expected to be opening-night starter Sept. 5 against, yes, those Ravens, while the bulked-up Hillman is in line to play the change-of-pace role.

Moreno, who's had an up-and-mostly-down four-year Denver career is the wild card of the bunch - meaning he could be a sleeper coming off offseason knee surgery or he could find himself on the waiver wire as well come August. What is certain, though, is that the combined resumes of all three backs don't come close to matching the NFL pedigree of McGahee, who overcame two horrific college knee injuries just to make it to the big show. And in a league where the average career spans all of three-and-a-half seasons, McGahee has continually proven himself time and again, grinding out 8,097 yards and 63 TDs over nine seasons.

Sure, young legs, potential and rookie contracts are more team-friendly in today's NFL, but don't be surprised if the Broncos wind up missing McGahee's toughness and veteran presence when the going gets tough this coming season.

Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver Broncos and the NFL since early childhood, and can be followed on Twitter @kenpomp.

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