Breaking Down Denver Broncos Biggest Training Camp Battle: Running Back

Jon Heath@ IAugust 1, 2013

July 25, 2013; Englewood, CO, USA;Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman (21) and running back Montee Ball (38) and running back Lance Ball (35) during training camp at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp is upon us and camp battles are happening all across the NFL landscape. The Denver Broncos are no exception at their Dove Valley headquarters.

In Denver, three running backs—Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball—will all be competing for the starting RB gig that was vacated when Willis McGahee was released earlier in the offseason.

Before we jump into breaking down the competition, we'll let former Broncos running back Terrell Davis, now an analyst at NFL Network, have the first word.

(Note that the network mispronounces Montee Ball's name.  It is pronounced "Mon-TAY," not "Mon-TEE".)

Davis had some notable points, and his comment about Denver's backfield becoming "one of the best in football" has to be exciting for Broncos fans. But Davis failed to mention the biggest horse (literally) in Denver's backfield competition.

Knowshon Moreno (Experience: 4 Years, Height/Weight: 5'11, 220 Pounds)

Moreno is often criticized by Broncos fans for not living up to the expectations that were placed on him as a first-round pick in 2009, but Moreno has developed into a solid running back and stepped in nicely for the Broncos late last season.

When McGahee went down in Week 11 last season, Moreno was thrust back into a starting role. He started the final six games of the season and rushed for 515 yards, added 155 more receiving yards and scored three touchdowns while helping the Broncos go 6-0 to close out the season.

At age 26, Moreno is still relatively young, but with four years and 30 starts under his belt, he is by far the most experienced back in Denver's backfieldand that may end up being a key factor. Coach John Fox is known for sticking to his guns when it comes to going with the veterans (see: Delhomme, Jake and Orton, Kyle).

Knowshon Moreno gives the Broncos "the best chance to win," as Fox loves to say.

Peter Burns of Mile High Sports Radio tweeted out that Moreno came to camp looking "HUGE" compared to last season (in a good way). ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey says that he has looked good as a receiver out of the backfield, and perhaps most importantly, he is by far the team's best pass-blocking RB. In short, Moreno is the team's best option right now, and that's not just my personal opinion.

Moreno is not a flashy option, but he is a complete back, has experience with Denver's coaching staff and has already spent time as a starter in Denver's current offensive scheme. Moreno is starter material, and he's probably the front-runner to land the No. 1 job.

But Moreno will face competition.

Ronnie Hillman (Experience: 1 Year, Height/Weight: 5'10, 195 Pounds)

Ronnie Hillman was the team's third-round pick in the draft a year ago. As a rookie in 2012, Hillman saw limited playing time, rushing 85 times for 330 yards and one touchdown.

In his second season, Hillman is looking to see an increased role, if not win the starting gig outright.

As noted in the above video, Hillman is looking to bulk up (something he has done already) and become a more explosive running back in 2013. So far, so good.

As noted by Mile High Report, Hillman has been getting a lot of the first-team reps at camp, and ESPN's Lammey reports that the feeling in Denver is that Hillman may enter the season as the team's starter.

Hillman has been viewed as a scatback since entering the NFL (which is understandable when you are playing at 5'10", 180-something-pounds), but he is looking to shake that reputation and emerge as the top back in Denver. According to the Denver Post's Woody Paige, Hillman is well on his way to getting there.

Paige wrote on Sunday:

Hillman is more comfortable and, Fox told me, 'tenacious.' (Offensive coordinator Adam) Gaze said Hillman has made the second-year leap, and his blocking has improved.

Ball and Hillman shall be Thunder and Lightning, and Hillman will be the Broncos' next 1,000-yard running back.

Paige went on to note that Hillman "will be the starter," stating it as if it were a fact, not merely just an opinion. The fact that Hillman has improved as a blocker and is the team's most explosive back will only help his cause.

Hillman has a shot at winning the starting job, and he's ready to prove he can handle it.

Montee Ball (Experience: Rookie, Height/Weight: 5'10", 214 Pounds)

The Broncos' second pick of the 2013 NFL draft, Montee Ball comes to Denver after breaking several NCAA rushing records while at Wisconsin. One of the top running backs going into this year's draft, expectations are high for Ball going into his first season as a pro.

But those expectations may need to be tempered, as it is unlikely that Ball will be dubbed the starter early on, especially if he does not start performing better at training camp.

Ball is a well-rounded runner that will likely be a big part of Denver's backfield for many years to come, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing since he arrived. According to Lammey, Ball hasn't wowed as a runner and his pass protection has been poor.

On a positive note, Mile High Report noted that Ball has received some first-team reps, and Lammey reported that he has looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. Ball has work to do, but his potential is off the charts.


  • Knowshon Moreno has bulked up and is the most experienced runner. He is also the best pass-blocker and has looked well as a receiver out of the backfield.
  • Ronnie Hillman has also bulked up and has improved as a pass-blocker. He is the team's most explosive runner and is viewed by many as the favorite to win the job.
  • Montee Ball has struggled as a pass-blocker and hasn't been overly impressive as a runner. One of the only positives going for Ball is the fact that he has looked smooth as a receiver out of the backfield.

As of today, Moreno and Hillman seem the most likely candidates to win the Week 1 starting job. That could all change, of course, if Ball goes off in the preseason—which very well could happen.

Expect one of the more experienced RBs to eventually win the job, with the two other RBs filling rotational roles. Ball will ultimately become the feature back in Denver, but it is not his job to lose.

My money is on Moreno winning the job, but Hillman is close behind. Ball will probably take over by midseason, but he will have to be eased into the offense.

At the end of the day, Denver has a talented backfield trio that, as Terrell Davis said, has the potential to become one of the best backfields in the NFL.


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