ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Look, folks can’t say they weren’t warned.
But the Broncos' depth chart at running back will be a fluid affair this season, until it’s not. It’s going to be a tough thing to pin down, that whole who’s-going-to-get-the-carries thing, and, truth be told, the Broncos kind of like it that way. This is a team which, after all, has had nine different running backs lead it in carries for at least one season since 1999.
“We don’t have a guy that’s going to be a 30-carry guy and we pretty much said, 'Hey, this is going to be a committee-type backfield’,’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “And we’ve never shied away from that.’’
Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball have gone back and forth, splitting reps with the starters on offense throughout training camp and the preseason. While Hillman had the upper hand, albeit slightly, through offseason workouts and three preseason games, two fumbles in the past two games combined -- both of which were returned for touchdowns -- have now jumbled the order a bit. Ball got some additional work with the starters this week, but neither is expected to play much, if at all, in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
Then there is the matter of Knowshon Moreno. Because he is more proficient in pass protection than the other two, Moreno has gotten some premium snaps with the starters of late, including in the two-minute drill to close out the first half against the Rams on Saturday night. And that's no small item, given that Ball missed a block in Seattle that resulted in quarterback Peyton Manning taking one of the hardest hits in his time with the Broncos, a play Ball called the "worst feeling, seeing a future Hall of Famer get hit like that.''
All of which only makes the committee a little bigger. Toss in the fact that Jacob Hester can play fullback -- he's the only fullback on the roster at the moment -- and is a quality receiver out of the backfield, and things get even a little muddier.
Asked about the speculation about who will start and be the main guy, Broncos coach John Fox said, “Well, I don’t even know yet, so I don’t know how you all know. … We have good feelings about both (Ball and Hillman). As I mentioned … they’ll both carry a big load for us this season … they’re both very capable and we’re pleased with both of them.’’
Asked about Moreno, Fox added, "He’s high up there, too. If you look over my last two years, or my tenure here, we’ve leaned on a lot of different guys … whoever we keep we feel good about.’’
In terms of skill sets, you could make the argument that Ball, with a bigger frame, is the best first-down back in traditional run-game situations; that Hillman’s versatility and speed as a runner and receiver make him a good pick on those second-down plays of mid-range down and distance; and that Moreno, because he consistently makes the right choices in pass protection as well as when to release from the backfield and go into the pass pattern, makes the most sense on third down.
And in this age of specialization in the NFL, the Broncos runners could potentially take it one step further.