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Mohrmann: The Broncos cut the wrong running back

When the Broncos made their second pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, everyone knew that a veteran running back was on borrowed time. The addition of Montee Ball was going to force the Broncos to get rid of either Knowshon Moreno or Willis McGahee.

Neither escaped the 2012 season uninjured and they were the two highest paid running backs on the team. Something was going to have to give.

During the Broncos voluntary offseason workouts, Moreno was in attendance, but limited due to his recovery from a knee injury. McGahee opted to skip the OTAs to attend to some family obligations. Both were present at the start of the mandatory minicamp for the Broncos this week, but only would remain on the roster at the end.

McGahee was released by the Broncos on Thursday morning. The team made a significant roster move that they’re hoping will get them closer to a Super Bowl.

The only problem is that for this team to be as successful as possible, they cut the wrong guy. The Broncos did need to thin out the ranks at running back before training camp begins in July, but it was Moreno that should’ve been shown the door.

McGahee’s value to the Broncos during the last two seasons has been downplayed due to the presence of two very popular quarterbacks. He was the big free agent signing for the Broncos going into the 2011 season. New executive vice president of football operations John Elway understood the need for a reliable running back more than anyone working in the top floor offices at Dove Valley.

The best back on the market that year was McGahee and Elway wasted no time in bringing him to Denver. He initially seemed to blend in to a dull offense led by Kyle Orton. That would all change when the Broncos made the choice to remove Orton and give Tim Tebow a shot as the starting quarterback. Although the comebacks that season were fueled by Tebow’s passion, the foundation of that offense was McGahee.

It was easy to see that John Fox and Mike McCoy did not entirely trust Tebow at quarterback. They decided to shift Denver’s offense to a run-heavy scheme, with McGahee being the most effective of those runners.

Through the Broncos six-game winning streak with Tebow at quarterback, McGahee averaged close to 4.5 yards per carry. His consistency in moving the football allowed for holes to open for Tebow, giving the Broncos a dual-threat in the backfield.

The Broncos had to have an option other than Tebow given the quarterback’s accuracy issues in throwing the ball. McGahee filled that role, playing a vital role in getting Denver to the playoffs.

When the Broncos moved on from Tebow and brought in Peyton Manning, McGahee’s role shifted. No longer was he required to be a consistent ball carrier for the Broncos. His carries were reduced, his receptions increased and he played an essential role in protecting Manning as a pass protector. Through only 10 games in 2012, McGahee more than doubled his pass receptions and had four times as many receiving yards.

The new pass-heavy offense with Manning was doing wonders for McGahee. His fumbling issues did prove to be a concern, but it wasn’t something he had struggled with earlier in his career, so it never became a long-term worry.

Moreno, on the other hand, has spent his entire career trying to figure out how he fits on this football team. He was drafted by Josh McDaniels in 2009 only to come in to a pass-heavy offense that saw Kyle Orton put up career numbers. Moreno ran for nearly 1,000 yards in his rookie year, but also had fumbling issues that saw him cough up the ball four times.

Things didn’t get better for Moreno in 2010; they actually got worse. He was injured during the first day of training camp and wasn’t healthy enough to play until the third game of the year. When he finally got back on the field, there were no signs that he had overly improved with his play. His averages stayed the same and he was not playing to the level of a first-round running back.

The 2011 season was easily the worst of Moreno’s career. He registered only 37 rushing attempts before tearing his ACL against the Kansas City Chiefs and missing most of the season. By the time training camp rolled around in 2012, many were wondering if Moreno would even make the team. He was placed on the active roster, but fell out of favor with Fox and was inactive from week three until McGahee tore his MCL.

The Broncos knew going into the 2013 season that they couldn’t bring back both McGahee and Moreno. Fox said after McGahee was released that the decision was based on the team’s need to get younger at the position. That’s not a bad mentality to have, but by cutting McGahee, Denver also exiled the only veteran who has had a measurable level of success in his career.

Only two years ago, the Broncos relied on McGahee to balance the running attack with Tebow. It was only last year that Denver didn’t trust Moreno enough that they decided to take their chances with an unproven rookie in Ronnie Hillman.

The worst-kept secret heading into training camp this season was that the Broncos’ needed to thin the ranks a bit at running back. The guy they choose to part ways with is the one guy they could count on at that position should the need arise.

Ball and Hillman represent what the backfield of the future looks like for the Broncos, but if they find themselves with a need to have a strong veteran presence in the backfield, they’ll wish it was Knowshon Moreno that they moved on from.


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