The Denver Broncos made a not so surprising, yet significant, move yesterday by releasing veteran running back Willis McGahee on the final day of the team’s minicamp. Although the move was expected, it takes the Broncos backfield in a new direction heading into the 2013 season, as they try to make another serious run at getting to the Super Bowl.
McGahee gave the Broncos two productive seasons, despite turning 30 a month into his first season in Denver. He was an integral part of Denver making the postseason each of the past two seasons, first as the running mate to quarterback Tim Tebow in a run-based offense, and then as the rushing complement to one of the best passers in NFL history, Peyton Manning. Until suffering a season-ending knee injury midway through last season, McGahee was on pace for another 1,000-yeard season and may have actually eclipsed the 1,199 yards he had in 2011.
Unfortunately, that knee injury not only ended his season last year, but it has also ended his tenure with the Broncos. Denver was able to piece together their backfield without McGahee last year, but they clearly missed him during their playoff loss to the Ravens. It was obvious by his performance the past two seasons in Denver that McGahee has plenty left in the tank, but after yet another knee injury, and with the Broncos having such high aspirations in 2013, they don’t feel they can rely on an aging veteran that’s coming off a serious injury to be their running back. So where does the leave the Broncos in the backfield?
After using a high draft pick on a running back the last two years, the Broncos will go with a rather youthful backfield in 2013. McGahee being released at the end of minicamp as opposed to during training camp or following the preseason is a sign that the Broncos feel secure handing over the starting duties to rookie Montee Ball. Manning has already offered an endorsement for Ball, as well as a challenge to him to become Denver’s primary ball carrier this season. That’s both high praise and high pressure coming from Manning, but Manning wouldn’t have said it unless Ball had been impressive in offseason workouts with the Broncos, and so the former Heisman Trophy finalist should be capable of grabbing the starting job and giving the Broncos everything they need out of their starting running back.
With McGahee out of the picture, Ronnie Hillman becomes the leading candidate to share time with Ball. Hillman showed flashes last season, but is probably best suited for a part time role. With Ball being a physical runner that’s capable of being a workhorse back, Hillman won’t be relied upon to handle too many carries, which makes Ball and Hillman a tandem that will complement each other perfectly. Both are unproven in the NFL, but both offer plenty of potential. If things don’t work out as expected with either Ball or Hillman, the Broncos could look to Knowshon Moreno, who filled in adequately for McGahee last year, but is once again down on the depth chart and may be nearing the end of his time with the Broncos.
As for McGahee, his career in the NFL is certainly not over. As long as he can prove that he’s recovered from his latest knee injury, there will be a team out there that’s willing to give him the ball on a regular basis. After giving them nearly 2,000 yards rushing over a season and a half, it’s a shame that McGahee won’t be around while the Broncos take another serious shot at getting to the Super Bowl. But Denver has chosen to move on from the veteran McGahee and give its young running backs a chance to help carry them through the season and to the Super Bowl.