ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- That Willis McGahee was cut by the Denver Broncos on Thursday was not a surprise, especially after rookie Montee Ball and 2012 draft pick Ronnie Hillman established themselves at the team's top two running backs during organized team activities.
Although McGahee led the Broncos in rushing each of the past two seasons, the team's decision to invest two early round picks at his position offered evidence that the 31-year-old was on borrowed time.
But the timing of the move came as a bit of a shock.
"I was surprised that it would be this early, to be honest," Hillman said. "He's still capable of doing the things that he was doing six years ago."
But is McGahee capable of staying healthy?
After 10 seasons in the NFL with three teams -- including two with the Broncos that were plagued by late-season injuries as the wear and tear accumulated -- it was fair to wonder whether he could hold up any longer under a heavy burden if that need arose.
With Hillman and Ball earning praise from coaches and teammates for their growth in the offense and ability to pick up blitzes, and the presence of 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, who replaced the injured McGahee late in 2012, the potential of McGahee being a $3 million third-teamer was high. That price would have proved prohibitive, even with the team under the salary cap.
Still, the Broncos had no pressing reason to cut him so early. His contract wasn't crippling them under the salary cap; they still had room to sign their rookies and add multiple veterans, as they did last year with August signings of safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker Keith Brooking. McGahee could have been an insurance policy during the preseason, just as Moreno was in the regular season last year. So why cut him now?
"That's a good question," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I think in fairness to him, I think the things he's done for us, this gives him a better opportunity to hook on somewhere. It gives us a better opportunity to give some of these young guys more reps. It's just a conscious decision for us to get younger."
And it doesn't get much younger than this for the Broncos: Ball is 22 and Hillman, the youngest player in the NFL last season, is just 21.
"We joke around. We're starting to build a friendship," Hillman said. "He's a younger guy -- he's actually older than me, but I've been in the league longer, so I kind of help him out. He actually helps me out sometimes. He's coming along very well and he's doing a lot of good things out there."
When Fox employed running platoons, he typically opted to start the more experienced player. In Carolina, he started Stephen Davis over DeShaun Foster; Foster over DeAngelo Williams and finally Williams over Jonathan Stewart. The backup often had more carries, so if Fox follows form and starts Hillman over Ball, it doesn't mean that Ball will be relegated to spot duty.
Still, being the starter matters to both -- especially with the chance that Moreno, who started the last six games of 2012, could knock both out of that role.
"My goal is to play," Ball said. "Even if I get in and get one play, two plays, I'll be happy because I'm contributing in some way. Obviously, my goal is to be the starter, speaking for everybody, we want that position."
Who earns that role will depend more on their ability to pick up blitzes than carry the football. McGahee excelled in that area last year. Moreno improved after allowing a sack in Week 1. Hillman struggled, but believes that adding 20 pounds of weight to hit 200 pounds will help him.
The biggest question there is around Ball, who handled some pass protection at the University of Wisconsin when Russell Wilson was the starting quarterback in 2011, but faces a different challenge entirely in protecting Manning, who is nowhere near as likely to step out of the pocket and evade the pass rush.
Ball held up well in blitz pickup scenarios the last four weeks, but knows training camp will offer a sterner test.
"Well, right now with no pads on I think I'm pretty good. But, no, when we come back we're going to put pads on, it's going to be a different story," Ball said. "We're going to do pass protection scenarios one-on-one with the linebackers. But I'm sure I'll be good at it."
How good he is will determine whether the rookie can step into the void McGahee leaves.