In the wake of big offseason moves, most notably the signing of All-Pro wide receiver Wes Welker and left tackle Ryan Clady, the Denver Broncos made the tough decision to release their veteran running back in Willis McGahee and put their trust in two promising young backs – Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball – to complement Knowshon Moreno.
Unfortunately, both backs have been severely disappointing this season. Hillman has shown great running ability and tremendous vision – averaging 4.6 yards per carry – but has struggled in pass protection as well as holding onto the football (two fumbles on only 40 carries). Ball, on the other hand, has demonstrated a terrific work ethic, but simply lacks NFL explosion and is essentially used only as a short-yardage back (averages only 3.2 yards per carry). As a result the Broncos rushing attack had dropped from the NFL‘s 16th best in 2012 to the 30th in 2013.
While Ball seems to have secured a roster spot, at least for the rest of the season, the Broncos appear ready to cut ties with Hillman as he was listed as inactive for the Washington Redskins game after relinquishing a game-losing fumble late in the Indianapolis Colts game. The only question is what direction do the Broncos go if Hillman is released?
Fortunately for the Broncos, they carried four running backs this year keeping C.J. Anderson, a rookie free agent signing. While he showed real promise with his first carries of the season in the Redskins game averaging 5.5 yards per carry, it is very small sample size against one of the league’s worst defenses. Is he reliable enough to use in the playoffs? The question alone merits the Broncos inspections of the unsigned free agent running back.
The free agent running back that clearly stands out the most is Michael Turner. With nine years of NFL experience, Turner has a proven track record in the NFL, scoring at least 10 rushing touchdowns in each of the last five years, and rushing for more that 1,300 yards three times. Moreover, his 5-foot-10, 247-pound frame has proven to be incredibly durable, not missing a single game for the past six years. However, thanks to his long career, he is fairly expensive and his body has taken a lot of abuse over the years.
The next big unsigned name is Beanie Wells. He had a terrific career at Ohio State, and has averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 8.5 touchdowns in NFL seasons when he plays in at least 14 games. While he is not a home-run hitter out of the backfield, he is very consistent when healthy and would be a terrific complement to Moreno. Drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft, Wells has enough experience but is still young enough to become a staple of this offense – cheaply.
Lastly, and a bit of a stretch to be honest, is Ryan Grant. He is an explosive veteran who has had injury problems over the last few years, but has only averaged less than four yards per carry once, when he averaged 3.9 in 2008. Even though he only played five games in 2012, but his explosiveness could give the Broncos’ rushing attack a new dimension with ability to break a long run.
If the Broncos’ are going to make a deep run in the playoffs this year, they absolutely must improve their run game – even if that means cutting the team’s second round pick from 2012 in order to pick up a more reliable free agent.
Written by John Spina. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @jsspina24.