ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No Denver Broncos player attracted more media attention as he left the practice field on Tuesday than running back Willis McGahee. But few spent more idle time during the first practice of the Broncos' three-day mandatory minicamp.
"You know, I was just actually seeing what was going on, seeing how things were operating out there," he said. "I got a couple of plays in."
McGahee anticipated more work would come his way in subsequent minicamp practices, but the light workload offered the strongest indication yet that his absence from voluntary organized team activities the last three weeks had put him behind the other running backs, particularly rookie Montee Ball and second-year veteran Ronnie Hillman.
McGahee cited "family reasons" as the basis for his absence from OTAs and said he told Broncos coach John Fox that he wouldn't take part.
"He had his issues and stuff he had to take care of this offseason and everybody knew that so it was fine," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "We knew where he was. He's coming back in shape. If he was out of shape, then it would be a problem. But he looks the part and he looks in shape, so he's good."
Still, even an in-form McGahee can't turn back the clock. He turned 31 last season, and even though he has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, he knows he's treading where few other running backs roam.
Ball and Hillman were drafted with the intent of being used heavily. Both were second-day picks in the last two drafts. The Broncos' investment in the pair -- and their lack of NFL wear and tear -- could leave McGahee's place in peril. But McGahee figures he would have been in a tenuous situation regardless of whether he showed up for OTAs or not.
"I probably would have been behind the eight-ball either way," McGahee said. "But at the end of the day I'm going to go out there and be Willis McGahee. I can't worry about what other guys are doing."
Another factor that leaves McGahee in the lurch is the team's salary-cap crunch. If the Broncos cut McGahee, they would be left with $1 million in dead money -- $1.342 million less than the dead-money figure if they release 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, who started in place of the injured McGahee for the final six regular-season games of 2012. The rest of the Broncos' running backs are low-cost players either on their first contracts or earning close to the league minimum for their experience level.
"Because the guys are younger, I'm going to always be on the bubble, so there's not too much you can do," McGahee said. "It's a business. If something happens, it happens."
And if it doesn't, there might not be any chances left for McGahee, who has posted 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams -- the Bills, Ravens and Broncos -- and has made a habit of comebacks since overcoming a a horrific knee injury in his final college game for the University of Miami.
McGahee shredded multiple ligaments in that Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State but was still selected in the first round by Buffalo, which knew he would likely sit out his rookie year. His delayed debut was outstanding; in 2004, he ran for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season back and averaged 1,143 yards in his first four seasons.
In the following three seasons, his workload declined as the Ravens, who acquired him in 2007, emphasized Ray Rice. He was thought to be over the hill when the Broncos signed him in 2011 and then responded with a Pro Bowl season, gaining 1,199 yards. But nagging injuries dogged him late in 2011, and in 2012 he missed the final six games with a knee injury after fumbling a career-worst five times in the first 10 games.
Nevertheless, McGahee plans to make one final stand.
"I plan on starting Sept. 5," he said.
"About the last seven years, I've been written off. Getting too old. I love it, though. I think if I didn't have that motivation, I probably would be done by now. But you know there's people out there who have their doubts and I'm out to prove them wrong."
With McGahee back, just two healthy Broncos did not practice: offensive tackle Ryan Clady and defensive end/linebacker Shaun Phillips. Clady is not eligible to practice because he has not signed his franchise tender, although he is expected to do so before training camp. Phillips was granted an excused absence for personal reasons.