COMMENTARY | The Denver Broncos didn't lose the AFC Divisional Round game against Baltimore because they lack a star running back (RB), but that type of player could have won the game. Defensive breakdowns and questionable coaching decisions had more to do with Denver's loss, but a star RB could have contributed at key times of the game to help Denver salt away the win.
Against Baltimore, Denver ran the ball 41 times for 125 yards. That's a 3.01 yards per carry average. Pathetic. Weather wasn't really a factor (it was cold). Denver had a very good offensive line this season, including two All-Pros (tackle Ryan Clady and guard Zane Beadles). But as a team, Denver averaged 3.8 yards per carry for the season, tied for 23rd in the league.
They need a star RB to get tough yards in the playoffs when it's 10 degrees on the field and they need three yards for a first down in the fourth quarter. The Broncos tried Jacob Hester in that role against Baltimore, but he couldn't deliver. Knowshon Moreno had a nice run at the end of the season, but honestly, I don't trust him, and he's not big enough to get tough yards in the trenches when it counts. Ronnie Hillman has a whole mess of potential but he couldn't shine when given the chance last season.
Willis McGahee has two years left on his current contract, and has been nothing short of great while a Bronco.
I don't trust him.
McGahee's career was reborn when he arrived in Denver in 2011. In two seasons in Denver, McGahee racked up 1,930 yards in 25 games, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which would have put him near the top 10 in the league had he not been injured.
And that's the problem. The torn knee ligament he suffered in Week 11 against San Diego kept him out through the Divisional Playoffs round. Had Denver advanced, he may have played in the AFC Championship Game or Super Bowl. He's a 31-year-old RB recovering from a knee injury.
I could be completely wrong. He could come back next year and tear it up, but I'm not willing to risk one of Manning's few remaining years on what McGahee might do.
Denver has Peyton Manning for three more seasons at most. They need a stud RB in the draft or through free agency to play for the Lombardi Trophy. Let's look at who might be available.
The RB draft class
Chad Reuter of NFL.com has South Carolina junior Marcus Lattimore as the top-ranked RB in this year's draft class, even though he suffered the second year-ending knee injury of his college career on October 27th.
CBSSports.com has Alabama redshirt junior Eddie Lacy ranked number one (Lattimore is sixth). Montee Ball from Wisconsin is also in both websites' top five. But that's where the agreement ends. This year's RB class doesn't have a can't miss star. ESPN.com doesn't even have a RB listed in its top 32 draft prospects.
If Denver could get Eddie Lacy I think he would be the instant starter, but he may be the only RB in this year's draft with that talent. Lacy is a five-foot, 10-inch, 220 pound granite rock from Nick Saban's Alabama football factory. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry this season and scored 17 touchdowns. I know he had All-Americans blocking for him up front, but he is still a top prospect.
Nobody else on the draft-eligibility list gets my attention. Would you trust Ball or Lattimore to pick up Clay Matthews on a blitz? Would you be comfortable giving Giovani Bernard the ball on third and three from the Broncos own 15 yard line late in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game?
Denver isn't going to find the star RB they need in the draft, unless they can get Eddie Lacy.
Most of the RBs available this year through free agency are also not that exciting. Reggie Bush, Shonn Green, and Rashard Mendenhall won't make good teams great.
But Steven Jackson might.
According to NFL.com writer Kareem Copeland, Jackson can void the final year of his $7 million contract with St. Louis and become a free agent. He's talked about leaving the Rams to "chase that Lombardi Trophy."
While it seems Jackson has been in the NFL for a long time, he is only 29 years old. I know he's also had some injuries, but he's played in an average of 14.56 games since he joined the league in 2004.
His offensive statistics are impressive. For his career, Jackson averages 81.6 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. In 2012, he averaged 65.13 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry, and scored four touchdowns. He also did not fumble this season.
Jackson is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. He tallied 38 receptions this season for 321 yards.
Jackson is a big (he's listed at six-foot two-inches tall and 240 pounds) back that can get tough yards when needed and run to daylight when possible. He can also be counted on to protect Manning in the pocket and catch the ball out of the backfield.
One of the underrated advantages of having Peyton Manning on your team and being an expected favorite to get to the Super Bowl next season is that veteran players that want a chance to get a ring are attracted to Denver. Denver may be a destination spot for veteran free agents this off-season.
And if John Elway really wants to get back to the Super Bowl, he'll use that advantage to lure a top RB like Steven Jackson to Denver and give the Broncos the best chance to win it all.
Todd Erickson is a sports and technology writer based in Denver, Colorado. He has written for sports and fantasy sports magazines and websites, and is a regularly published journalist on nationally recognized IT websites.