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Broncos Question Marks: #4 – Running Back

When the Broncos run, it’s like declaring “Baggy Shirt Day” at Hooters.

It’s no whisper; fans want to see what they paid for.

But with four neck surgeries on file, Peyton Manning’s $96 million arm has passed well beyond its warranty. In fact, it’s football fields from the way it used to be.

“It is what it is,” said a glum Manning when he was asked about his arm strength last season.

So when looking to the 2013 season, the Broncos won’t be as concerned with who is behind No. 18 on the depth chart, but who is behind the soon-to-be-37-year-old quarterback on the field.

Denver’s running back needs to do his part.

Last season, the Broncos rushed for 1,832 yards on 481 attempts. They counted on a variety of backs to hit those numbers.

It started with Willis McGahee, who led the charge with 731 yards and four touchdowns before his season ended in week 11 after he tore his MCL against the San Diego Chargers. But for all the good McGahee did for the Broncos with his veteran leadership on and off the field, the soon-to-be 32-year-old running back will be owed $2.5 million after finishing only nine games in 2012. And while that’s affordable for the Broncos, John Elway doesn’t sound convinced on McGahee’s return

“We are still evaluating (McGahee),” Elway said after the season

After that, it was former first-round pick, and bust on many accounts, Knowshon Moreno, who made the most of his “last chance” with the Broncos, racking up 525 yards and four touchdowns before his season ended in the third quarter of the Divisional Round against the Baltimore Ravens. Moreno picked the Broncos up where McGahee left off. He ran the ball effectively and did a presentable job in the blocking schemes to keep Manning on his feet. But now, a once-again hobbling Moreno, who is set to make $3.28 million in his final year on his rookie contract, may not make it that far as Bronco, according to multiple sources.

The fact is: Moreno hasn’t been healthy for an entire season in Denver since he was drafted by the team in 2009.

Last season, Moreno and McGahee were the two major cogs in a backfield that also featured touches from Lance Ball, Jacob Hester and rookie Ronnie Hillman.

At times, the team that finished the season ranked 16th in rushing yards was solid on the ground, even punishing, like against the New Orleans Saints, when Willis McGahee led the Broncos’ 225 yards on the ground with 122 of his own. At others, the team that ranked 25th in yards per carry (3.8) and tied for third in fumbles lost (six) was yawning and seemingly nonexistent. In fact, throughout the whole season, while 69 percent of the NFL teams had a long run of 50 yards or more, the Broncos’ longest run of the year was a 31-yard carry by Hillman against the Saints, who eventually fumbled at end of the play.

In the end, Manning still threw the team into the No. 1 slot in the AFC. But with McGahee and Moreno hurt, rookie 5-foot-9, 185-pound back Hillman couldn’t push the line and the Broncos couldn’t control the clock near the end of regulation in their only playoff game. And thus, Joe Flacco got his chance, and the Ravens eventually broke Denver’s heart.

So now, expect the Broncos to pick up a difference maker on the free-agent market.

The most talked about running back the Broncos could land is St. Louis bruiser Steven Jackson, who said he will test the free-agent market in 2013. The nine-year veteran, who will turn 30 by season’s start, has rushed for 10,135 career yards – all as a Ram. But while he’s rushed for 1,000 yards in eight-consecutive seasons, the Rams have not made the playoffs in a single one of those campaigns.

Now he wants to join a winner. The Broncos could do that for him. The question is if the Broncos want to pay Jackson what will probably be a high price, after he voided the $7 million he was set to make next season with the Rams.

On one side, Jackson would not help the Broncos in the explosive department, as his longest run of last season was 22 yards. And on top of that, he only carried the ball for more than 15 yards on 20.4 percent of his carries per ProFootballFocus.com.

But on the other, Jackson rushed for 2.7 yards per carry after contact last season; something that would allow the Broncos to control the clock late in games – something they could have used last season.

Other Super Bowl contenders who have reportedly shown interest in the Oregon State product are the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants.

The other back that the Broncos have reportedly been looking at is New York Jets runner Shonn Greene, while backs like New Orleans Saints Chris Ivory, Miami Dolphin Reggie Bush, New York Giant Ahmad Bradshaw, and former Bronco and current Kansas City Chief Peyton Hillis will also likely test the market in 2013.

Greene, 27, ran for his second-consecutive 1,000-yard season for the ever-dwindling New York Jets offense. When Greene is healthy, the 226-pound back is punishing. But his questionable durability meant only 276 carries for an average of 3.9 yards last season.

Ivory, 24, has rushed for more than five yards per carry in his career and has made defenders miss in one of every 4.9 touches. But with only 257-career carries in the NFL, the Broncos might deem him as too unproven for a team that’s window is closing sooner than later.

Bush, 27, has the explosion aspect the Broncos could use, but his durability and blocking skills have been in question since he came into the NFL. His price will also be a turn-off for the Broncos, who will not grab all of their backfield needs with just a back like Bush.

Bradshaw, 26, helped the Giants win two Super Bowls, and ran for more than 1,000 yards with six touchdowns last season. He also was known as the toughest player on the team in New York, but he’s already had surgery on his ankles and feet during his six years in the league.

And then there’s Hillis. After he was traded to Cleveland in a deal that brought Brady Quinn to Denver, the powerful back took his shots on how the Broncos mistreated him. And while most of the jabs were directed at ex-coach Josh McDaniels, Hillis won’t be back. Sorry to tease you.

As far as the draft goes, the Broncos will likely go with a defensive tackle. But if they surprise and go running back, former Alabama running back Eddie Lacy could be a good pick if he’s still there at the 28th pick – he’s strong, has great vision and packs a punch in the big-play department. See national championship.

But if the Broncos are looking for him to solve all their answers as a rookie back, they are hoping for a miracle. More realistically by round two, Wisconsin’s Monte Ball, North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore could provide some, not all, of the Broncos’ need in the backfield.

But as we wait, the Broncos must look to the past before making decision for 2013. Because if history has shown us anything about aging quarterbacks, it’s their need for a solid running game.

The last years of Joe Montana had Marcus Allen in Kansas City; Brett Favre had Adrian Peterson in his second and third comeback years in Minnesota; and John Elway had Terrell Davis in his final four years in the game, with the final two ending covered in confetti.

So who will Peyton Manning have behind him going forward?

It’s decision time for the Broncos.


MORE BRONCOS NEWS

Broncos could eye Jets’ Greene in free agency (CLICK HERE)

Broncos’ Woodyard joins Mile High Sports Radio (CLICK HERE)

Fox thinks Manning will improve in 2013 (CLICK HERE)

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