Former Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno reached agreement on a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins, per league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 27, 2014
Moreno was the lead back for the Broncos last year, but they showed zero urgency in trying to re-sign him for 2014. The main reason they failed to bring Moreno back was the presence of second-year runner Montee Ball:
Broncos believe in RB Montee Ball. With Knowshon Moreno off to Miami, Ball's time to shine.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 27, 2014
The Broncos do believe that Ball can be their lead back, and 2014 should be a breakout season for the second-year runner. Let’s examine why Ball could be more productive than Moreno was in the high-powered Broncos offense.
Ball is an efficient runner who wastes little motion with the ball in his hands. He’s not a dynamic runner who can outrun defenders, nor is he a true power back. Instead, Ball relies on his vision, balance and forward lean to maximize yards on most carries.
He came out of college as the NCAA’s career leader in touchdowns scored (83). Ball had plenty of experience with over 1,000 touches at Wisconsin. However, his transition in the NFL took some time.
In 2013, Ball had to learn how to be a pro back.
Early in the season Ball lacked the patience needed to be a productive pro runner. Too often he would try to bounce runs to the outside without pressing the hole. NFL defenders were able to easily run down Ball before he could make any sizable gain.
As the season went on, Ball learned that he must sometimes just take what the defense gives him. He stopped trying to make a big play on every carry. Instead, he started to grind. This style helped him get into a rhythm, then he could break off bigger runs after wearing down an opponent.
In the first eight games of 2013, Ball had 54 carries for 178 yards and one rushing touchdown. That was good for an average of only 3.2 yards per carry.
In the final eight games of 2013, Ball had 65 carries for 382 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He improved his average yards per carry to 5.9, giving him a rookie-season average of 4.7. This is a healthy number, and it’s indicative of what could be coming in 2014.
Catching the ball out of the backfield is arguably Ball’s most underrated talent. In 2013, Ball was targeted 27 times and caught 20 passes for 145 yards. That was good for an average of 7.3 yards per catch.
Ball received around one-third of the targets, and he got one-third of the yards that Moreno did in 2013. With an expanded role, Ball’s receiving numbers in 2014 might not be that far off what Moreno did last season.
He’s a natural receiver who does a good job of looking passes into his hands before turning to run after the catch. Ball can adjust to passes, and he does a good job of making the first defender miss.
This is one of the most important attributes for the young back. If he can’t adequately protect Peyton Manning, then Ball won’t see the field as much as he should.
Priority No. 1 for any Broncos back is to protect the quarterback. With so many audibles it’s difficult for a young back to grasp exactly where his pass-protection responsibilities are.
Ball did struggle with protecting Manning, and that was evident in the Week 2 preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks. He missed an assignment, and Manning took a hit we don’t normally see him take. This landed Ball on the bench, but he worked diligently after that to hone his craft.
With a year of experience under his belt, Ball should debut this season as a much improved pass-protector.
Moreno’s best asset was his ability in pass protection. If the Broncos felt Ball could not grasp their blocking concepts, there would have been a greater effort to keep Moreno around as a part-time player.
The Broncos are likely to add competition at the running back position later this offseason through free agency or the draft. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman should have an opportunity to compete with Ball for the starting job. Denver may also add a rookie running back at some point during the 2014 NFL draft, perhaps using another premium pick on the position.
Anderson is the team’s lone power back. His lower body is much bigger than Ball’s, and Anderson uses his power legs to push through arm tackles regularly. While he doesn’t have the nose for the end zone that Ball does, Anderson can be a battering ram near the goal line.
He also has a good initial burst. Anderson can get to top speed in a hurry, although he’s not as fast in a straight line as Ball. His burst and power could work well as a starter or primary backup.
Hillman is the team’s speed back. He’s arguably the fastest player on the team, and he can outrun angles taken by an opponent looking to tackle him. Hillman struggled in pass protection last year, and he was inactive for about half the season because of ball-security problems.
If Hillman is motivated to hang onto the rock, his speed makes him a dangerous change-of-pace back.
In the 2014 NFL draft, there are several quality backs for the Broncos to choose from. There are also many different types of runners they could consider adding at various times during the draft.
If the Broncos want to add more power to the backfield, then Jeremy Hill (LSU) could be an option on the second day of the draft. They could also wait on a power back and grab a guy like Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) or James Wilder Jr. (Florida State) on the final day of the draft.
Denver may want an all-purpose back. If that’s the case, then Charles Sims (West Virginia) might be the most well-rounded back in this class. Currently, Sims is seen as a third-round pick. Waiting until the third day of the draft, the Broncos could secure the services of former Georgia back Isaiah Crowell (Alabama State).
Maybe the Broncos want another change-of-pace back to compete with Hillman. On the second day of the draft, guys like Bishop Sankey (Washington) or Lache Seastrunk (Baylor) could fit nicely. Waiting until the third day of the draft, Denver could add Ball’s college teammate James White (Wisconsin).
Expect the Broncos to paint the picture of competition, as they won’t simply hand Ball the starting job. The competition for that job may be tougher than some think.
It’s Ball’s time to shine. At the combine, Broncos head coach John Fox had plenty of praise for his second-year back.
“Obviously we think very highly of him. I thought he had tremendous growth as a rookie running back in this league.” Fox continued his praise, “He got better with every week. We look for a big improvement next year and think he’s very, very capable.”
Fox agrees that the team should look for more of a power element to their ground game.
“I think, offensively, you do strive for balance. You’d like to have that attitude, that mindset to be able to run the football. It is something that I think every year when you look back at your season and evaluate schematically or even physically where you go, that’s an area we want to improve in.”
Now that Moreno is no longer with the team, Ball will get his chance to prove himself as a full-time back. He’ll have competition in training camp for the starting job, but he should emerge with the lead job.
As the Broncos strive for more balance offensively, Ball could get more carries than Moreno did last year. It may be difficult for Ball to match the 60 catches out of the backfield that Moreno had in 2013, but his total yardage on the season might be higher.
Ball is better suited to run between the tackles than Moreno, and he can break off longer runs than the more experienced veteran.
If the Broncos really wanted Moreno back, they would have made him an offer to stay in free agency. They passed on that opportunity because of a vision they have for Ball.
They want him—and expect him—to have a breakout year in 2014.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.