All you have to do is catch a glimpse of running back Knowshon Moreno in sweats on game days for the last five games. He’s in the fourth year of a five-year, $16.7 million deal — of which more than $13 million is guaranteed — but that doesn’t guarantee playing time.
There’s nothing wrong with Moreno health-wise; he was simply beaten out by Ronnie Hillman, who continues to consolidate his position as Willis McGahee’s backup. Hillman has some work to do in becoming a consistent runner, but shows better awareness in space — and in picking up blitzes — on a week-to-week basis and is steadily earning the Broncos’ confidence.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than when I first started out,” Hillman said. “With time comes comfortability and I’m getting a lot more comfortable with the offense and what I’m doing.”
Hillman’s hamstring, which ailed him early is also at 100 percent, he said. Barring any unforeseen injury, Hillman won’t be de-emphasized anytime soon, and could see more work if he has the hot hand and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy opts to ride it — something he and John Fox did in Carolina.
“We always kind of roll guys — who’s hot,” McCoy said. “They get on a roll, just let them keep going. and when they tap out because they get tired, you put the other guy in and go with the flow of the game.”
That’s good news for Hillman. But the only way Moreno will fit into this rotation is if something happens to Willis McGahee or Hillman; at this point, Moreno is no different than Caleb Hanie, the five-year veteran quarterback who also is a regular game-day scratch; they are insurance policies.
This is what Tracy Porter could face if he can’t regain his job in the secondary — and also D.J. Williams when he returns from his suspension if the linebackers stay healthy and Danny Trevathan proves that he is up to the challenge of defending elite tight ends when the Broncos go into their nickel package, an assignment he handled against New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham for most of last Sunday’s win.
“He did okay,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Some things that were really good, some things that we want to be better at. He made a couple big plays in the game for us. Danny’s done a nice job for us in the sub-package.”
Trevathan will get two more chances against tight ends before Williams returns, against Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham and Carolina’s Greg Olsen. Both have been effective this year. If Trevathan fortifies what has long been a soft spot of the Broncos’ defense, they’ll have to think long and hard over what to do with Williams, who was on the periphery of matters when he was eligible to practice in training camp and barely saw the field.
If Porter and Williams don’t re-claim their previous roles, it’s nice to have that kind of experience in reserve, even if the Broncos didn’t plan it that way. It would mean the Broncos got unexpectedly stellar play from unheralded youngsters like Trevathan, Chris Harris and Tony Carter.
We’ve seen Harris and Carter flourish the last two games; the two are athletic, aggressive and quick, and did a better job staying step-for-step with receivers than Porter, who was on the wrong end of two deep Texans passes in Week 3 and will now be brought back slowly.
“One day at a time,” said Del Rio. “We’ll bring him along and he’ll be ready to help out when he can and when we can utilize him we will.”
Porter’s contract was worth $4 million this year, and Williams’ pro-rates down to $2.058 million thanks to the nine games he lost to suspension. But the Broncos have regularly deactivated one first-round pick and demoted another who counts for $3.5 million in base salary this year (Joe Mays). That doesn’t even factor in the decision to release cornerback Drayton Florence (two years, $4.5 million) at the final cutdown Aug. 31.
Money and offseason plans don’t matter. Performance does. It’s an instructive lesson to the rest of the Broncos — and all those that follow — that offseason plans can and will be junked if better options arise, and that even a Super Bowl contender in win-now mode will not hesitate to cede major responsibility to the young and untested.