Just a week or so ago it appeared like Knowshon Moreno could be on his way out of Denver, with league-mandated cuts looming and a history of mediocrity marking his time in Denver.
However, the cuts came and went, and Moreno had survived. He had gotten desperate in practice, stating that he would even contribute on special teams to stay in Denver. His spirited play in the final game of the preseason, a game mostly consisting of third- and fourth-string players with little chance of making the squad, caught the eye of his coaches.
Before Monday’s first regular season practice, Moreno was buried down the depth chart, deep in head coach John Fox’s doghouse, after practice, Moreno had claimed the backup spot behind Willis McGahee.
Moreno leapfrogged both rookie Ronnie Hillman, who was thought to be Moreno’s permanent replacement, and Lance Ball, who showed great promise this offseason in his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Moreno, however, has excelled in pass-blocking during his career, something the team surely covets as it aims to keep Peyton Manning upright all season.
Manning has taken two big hits during the preseason from blitzing linebackers that the O-Line missed, and having Moreno in there on passing downs could shore up some of those whiffs during the regular season.
One of the primary reasons Moreno was brought in during the McDaniels era was to provide the Broncos with a receiving running back option out of the backfield who could create in open space. Moreno now leads the trifecta of “open-space” backs including Hillman and Ball that will complement the ground-and-pound McGahee.
As far as the implications for the highly touted Ronnie Hillman, this may be signaling that Hillman is not ready to take on the responsibilities of backing up McGahee. Hillman was listed below Ball earlier in preseason and spent much of the preseason fighting off a hamstring injury.
Once Hillman was on the field in the third preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, he didn’t show the speed and breakaway potential that many hoped he would have. In 10 carries, he accumulated just 29 yards, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. In his one reception out of the backfield, he picked up a modest four yards. This game was most comparable to the competition in an actual NFL game.
In the second preseason game Hillman competed in against the Arizona Cardinals, he had a much better showing, with 14 carries for 68 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. However, this was against players who are mostly backups or didn’t even make the squad.
Moreno did slightly better in both games versus the 49ers with 27 yards on seven carries (3.2 yards/carry average) and against the Cardinals with 49 yards on seven carries (seven yards/carry average). What Moreno does offer is his three years experience in the NFL and his blocking protection.
In order to hold onto his spot behind McGahee, Moreno must continue to show the intensity and desperation he had in his effort to keep his job last Thursday. He must continue to show off his skills blocking rushers for Peyton Manning, and he must make some spectacular plays out of the backfield with his receiving skills.
Moreno offers the Broncos great versatility on passing downs, as he can stay in there and block approaching rushers, and if none show he can sneak behind the D-line into the defensive backfield to create some space and manufacture big receptions. While it has been a long time waiting for Moreno to showcase all that he offers here in Denver, having a future Hall of Famer in Manning with a propensity to dump passes to backs in space should be a huge boost for his career.