- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the NFL's scouting combine just around the corner and free agency set to follow on March 11, today marks the second installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.
Today: Running backs. Tomorrow: Wide receivers.
It's slightly odd when a 26-year-old is the elder statesman, but that's exactly what Knowshon Moreno was when the Broncos' running backs gathered in their meeting room this past season. A player who had wrestled with questions about his maturity during his time with the Broncos was suddenly, for both personal progress and performance, the standard to follow.
Or as running backs coach Eric Studesville said: “Knowshon did that, and if the other guys in that room want to see how to handle yourself when it doesn't really go your way, or when it does, they have an example right in front of them.
And that's where the questions start for this group and the Broncos -- right at Moreno's immediate future and the readiness of the other players who were in that room with him last season.
The Alpha: It was unquestionably Moreno in 2013, but his contract's up. So Montee Ball may well have to be a heady combination of maturity far beyond that of a typical second-year player and the young legs at the position the Broncos want.
Salary cap: At the moment, three backs under contract for '14 will account for just 1.6 percent of the Broncos' salary cap if the limit comes in at about $126.3 million per team. Ball's cap charge is set to be $787,347, Ronnie Hillman is at $807,708 and C.J. Anderson is set at $499,166.
Pending free agents: Moreno, who was the first draft pick of Josh McDaniels' tenure, is an unrestricted free agent. He's also the only free agent the Broncos have at the position of players who were on the 53-man roster this past season.
Whether to re-sign Moreno will be a difficult choice for the Broncos. Moreno has had two major knee surgeries, including an ACL repair in 2011 to go with a stem-cell procedure last offseason, so while he may be looking for starter money -- and who wouldn't be after rushing for 1,038 yards to go with 60 catches this past season -- the Broncos may hope to keep him, but as a rotational player.
Who could stay: If the league's other personnel executives play it cool with the soon-to-be 27-year-old running back (in July) with a surgical history, Moreno could return to the Broncos. But it's clear they see big things in Ball's future and like the way he rebounded down the stretch. His lost fumble Nov. 24 in New England was his third of the season at that point and there was some consideration to reduce his playing time, but he did not have another fumble the rest of the way and finished as the team's second-leading rusher.
He also improved in pass protection and flashed at least some potential as a receiver.
Who could go: Paging Ronnie Hillman, it's time to snap out of it. Hillman, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft, is still the most explosive big-play threat the Broncos have at the position. But after essentially being handed the starting job through the offseason and into training camp last year, his season dissolved into being a game-day inactive over much of the season's second half, including all three postseason games.
The Broncos have invested a prime draft pick in him, but patience is not a trait any player should rely on, even a draft pick for a team that would like as many homegrown players on its depth chart as possible. The feeling, in house, is that Hillman moped more than a little after his demotion and didn't do all he could to earn some playing time back.
He's still just 22 years old -- he was one of the youngest players in the '12 draft -- and there is plenty of potential, but he'll get a hard look through the offseason and into training camp. If he would like to remain in the league's highest-scoring offense, his on-field actions need to prove that.
What they like/want: With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the position has certainly evolved for the Broncos, even in John Fox's three seasons as head coach. The Broncos now need a back who can function as a primary runner, protect the passer and catch the ball on key third downs.
And, oh, don't fumble or make any assignment errors that get the quarterback hit.
That's a lot to ask and the Broncos figure to either take a look at running backs in the second or third day of the draft or make an economical signing in free agency should Moreno move on.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 3
Moreno was the team's leading rusher in '13 and his 60 catches were fifth in the first 600-point offense in league history. His 13 total touchdowns trailed only wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' 14.
That's plenty of output from a player who may be able to secure a better offer elsewhere. The Broncos certainly believe Ball is ready to be at the front of the line, but they need somebody to be a third-down back and provide a little big-play pop.
Also, this group needs to be ready tackle new challenges because the running game figures to get a tweak or two in the playbook. The Broncos know, even with all of the NFL records they set on offense last season, they need to have more options when an opposing defense or Mother Nature make it difficult for them to throw the ball.
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