Countdown to camp: Running backs

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
7:30
AM ET
Montee BallAP Photo/Jack DempseyMontee Ball enters training camp atop the running back depth chart.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- You can’t blame a guy with the football résumé Montee Ball has for feeling the way he does.

But Ball, who has been promoted to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at running back for the Denver Broncos, thinks the ever-increasing reports of the demise of the NFL running back are premature. He believes there is plenty of room for some grind-it-out work, even in a fast-paced, throw-it-around, pass-first attack like the Broncos have.

“I’ve said it before, but I think it’s still a premier job -- to play running back in the NFL," Ball said. "I think there’s a role there, a job to be done that can impact the offense. It's needed."

The Broncos certainly agree, even with all they did with the ball in the air last season, and did not hesitate to clear the way to make Ball the starter this offseason. But the rest of the position group remains among the biggest questions on the Super Bowl hopefuls' depth chart.

And over the next week, we'll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Running backs.

How many coming to camp: 7

How many the Broncos will keep: After dabbling with the idea of a fullback in recent seasons -- the Broncos even traded for one (Chris Gronkowski) in 2012 -- they did not carry one on the roster last season.

And while they have tinkered with the idea of Virgil Green lining up in the backfield as both a blocker and ball carrier, they do not have a true fullback on this roster either. They kept five running backs in 2011 and four in both ’12 and ’13.

It is a youthful group overall, with Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, the most experienced player at the position. The Broncos figure to keep four when all is said and done in the preseason, but they don’t have much size -- just two of the seven backs in camp are heavier than 215 pounds -- so Green could become the de facto fourth back if they feel they need a roster spot elsewhere.

The guy to watch: Ball showed every reason the Broncos have promoted him into the lead role during offseason workouts. While the proof will always be in how things go when the pads are on, he showed good vision in the noncontact work, a comfort level as a receiver that showed he's moved past the limited work he did at Wisconsin in that part of an offense and an improved sense of where to be in pass protection.

He projects to have a big year. But the guy who could help the Broncos’ cause, as well, is the last guy to earn the offseason promotion to the top spot, and that’s Hillman, who didn’t keep the job until the end of training camp last year.

Hillman -- who came into the league as one of the youngest players in the 2012 draft, having played just two college seasons, including as a true freshman at San Diego State -- has plenty of talent. And from the Broncos’ perspective, he is their best home run threat at the position.

But plenty of folks don't always make the most of talent, and he didn’t approach things the way the Broncos had hoped last season. It showed in both his play and playing time, as he was even a game-day inactive at times last season. However, Hillman said all the right things this offseason and looked better on the field, as well, in recent months.

The Broncos need the potential pop he can give the offense, and if he doesn’t give it to them, that would be a hefty third-round pick who didn’t work out.

Break it down: The bottom line is the Broncos, because of the way they play offense out of a three-wide-receiver look much of the time, consistently see lighter formations with as few as six players in the box.

They didn’t always take advantage of that in the run game last season, especially in the red zone, and would like to this time around. That takes an offense that is already the highest scoring in league history and gives it an unnerving ability to close out games or score touchdowns when there isn’t much room for receivers to work. Knowshon Moreno had the best season of his career in 2013, but the Broncos came away believing they left a lot of rushing yardage on the table because they either didn't block those smaller formations well enough or run well enough if there was room to work.

Also, there is the matter of pass protection, and the guy who shows he’s the most consistent -- it’s how Moreno got, and kept, the top job last year on the way to 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions -- will be the guy who gets the third-down snaps or the second-and-long plays as well.

“Protecting Peyton Manning is huge, just huge," Ball said. “We all know that."

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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