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Friday, May 24, 2013
Eight in the Box: RB status check

By Matt Williamson

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How does each AFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Denver Broncos: The Broncos still have Willis McGahee, but he could become a salary-cap casualty. McGahee still runs hard and effectively (he’s averaged 4.4 and 4.8 yards the past two seasons), but this will be his 11th season and he missed six games in 2012. When McGahee went down last year, Knowshon Moreno filled in admirably. But his role is undefined right now after the Broncos used high picks on the position in the past two drafts. They used a second-rounder this year on Montee Ball, which was a win-now type of pick. Ball is a no-nonsense runner who handled a heavy workload in college. He fits this athletic zone scheme quite well, and I just have a hunch that John Elway saw a little of Terrell Davis in Ball when he made that selection. Ronnie Hillman was Denver’s third-round pick in 2012. With his lateral agility, Hillman is unlike any of the top backs on this roster. If he proves himself as a worthy pass protector, Hillman could be a very solid third-down back who also gets snaps on early down-and-distance situations. Lance Ball remains on the roster, but it seems like an uphill climb for him to make the final cut, which is also the case for Mario Fannin and Jeremiah Johnson. Of course, whoever is getting carries for Denver will be aided greatly by Peyton Manning’s fantastic skill of getting Denver in the correct play at the line of scrimmage and exploiting defenses that are playing the pass heavier than the run.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a superstar who could even get more productive, especially as a receiver, with Andy Reid as his head coach. As a runner, he is more than just a home run threat, but few are as dangerous as Charles when he gets some daylight. The 26-year-old speedster caught just 35 passes a year ago. That number might double in 2013. Charles is in line for a gigantic season. The Chiefs used an early third-round pick on Knile Davis. There were quite a few backs on the board I would have picked before Davis, but he is a fine combination of speed and size, although injuries and fumbles are major issues for this incoming rookie. Also in the fold are Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, who will have to prove their worth on special teams and in the passing game to stay with the team.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are going back to a power-run scheme, which suits Darren McFadden better and might get him back on track. But scheme will not help him stay healthy, which is clearly the biggest knock on him to this point. He is still young, and when right, McFadden runs with great aggression to go along with long speed. McFadden also can be a major contributor as a receiver. One of my favorite players in the league is Marcel Reece, who stepped up huge last season with McFadden out of the lineup. Reece does it all. He is equal parts fullback and running back but has extremely soft hands and is an excellent route runner. Every team in the league would love to him on its roster, even though he might never be considered a full-time running back. The Raiders also signed Rashad Jennings, who had a terrible year for Jacksonville in 2012. He, too, struggles to stay on the field, which might open up a prominent spot for Latavius Murray, a sixth-round pick this year. Murray has a rare combination of size and speed, but is very much a work in progress. Look for him to get an opportunity at some point, as McFadden is up for free agency after this season. The Raiders will need to see what they have in Murray.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews is right there with McFadden as the most maddening and untrustworthy running backs in the NFL. But once again, it looks like Mathews will be getting an opportunity to be San Diego’s foundation back. And there is no questioning his ability, which ranks among the best in the league. At 25, he should be thriving now, even behind San Diego’s poor offensive line. He has missed 10 games in his three seasons as a professional. Surprisingly, the Chargers didn’t bring in another runner as a backup plan if Mathews once again cannot stay on the field. They did add Danny Woodhead, though, who is an excellent all-around player and the type of back the Chargers have not had since Darren Sproles. Expect him to be used as a receiver on many quick-hitting pass plays, which is much easier from a protection standpoint on the Chargers’ suspect offensive line. Mathews is a very good receiver, but questionable in protection, while Woodhead is an excellent receiver but lacks the size to play a ton of snaps. Ronnie Brown was San Diego’s third-down back last year and is highly reliable, although not flashy, particularly in the passing game. Brown, like Mathews, has had a tough time staying healthy.