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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Broncos free agency primer: RB

By Jeff Legwold

With the countdown to free agency in its final hours, it's time to conclude the week-long look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.

Montee Ball
The Broncos will lean on second-year player Montee Ball to be the lead running back in 2014.
The Broncos are expected to be aggressive and active once the signings formally begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and have already taken a long look at Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward, as well as linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (he signed with the Indianapolis Colts). Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need and the draft is the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.

Plenty of folks around the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

Today: Running back

Why it's an issue: It's took Knowshon Moreno five seasons, two knee surgeries, a pile of ups and downs to go with a teetering roster spot when the Broncos opened 2013 training camp, but in the '13 season Moreno was everything the team hoped he would be all along.

He led the team in rushing, with 1,038 yards, scored 13 touchdowns overall, caught 60 passes and was the go-to guy at the position when it came to pass protection. Moreno was also the poster-child for perseverance and hard work in the team's running backs room.

He's also not expected back. Moreno is an unrestricted free agent and there is at least some feeling inside the Broncos' complex, they got every ounce of what Moreno had to give this past season. And that Montee Ball, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, is ready to move to the front of the line.

Ball closed out last season with 120 carries for 559 yards while steadily improving his work as a receiver and as a pass protector when working out of the backfield in the team's three-wide receiver set. The Broncos want him to be the guy, and Ball has done the work to show them he wants to be the guy, too.

However, the Broncos need some depth, especially if they can't kickstart Ronnie Hillman. Hillman went from being handed the starting job last offseason to what the team considered pouting his way down the stretch when he was often a game-day inactive.

Hillman is the potential big-play guy at the position and still has a pile of un-tapped potential, but he has to show something in the offseason work as the Broncos' patience will wear thin if they don't see an uptick in both performance and preparation.

The Broncos had undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson on the roster last season, as well. And Anderson is a bigger back, but is seen as a rotation/situational player at the moment.

The best out there: Teams are not really looking -- ever -- to break the bank on older running backs in free agency, so there is at least a scenario where Moreno returns to the Broncos on a short-term -- one- or two-year deal -- if he doesn't find anything in the open market to his liking.

Overall, however, the Texans' Ben Tate, the Colts' Donald Brown, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, the Raiders' Darren McFadden, the Raiders' Rashad Jennings, the Patriots' LeGarrette Blount, the Giants' Andre Brown, the Steelers Jonathan Dwyer, the Vikings' Toby Gerhart, the Steelers' Felix Jones and the Buccaneers' Brian Leonard lead what is a class full of question marks and plenty of injury history.

The 25-year-old Tate is the youngest of that group with the least wear and tear, but he also wants No. 1 back money and has already dubbed himself "elite" as the market was set to open. Jones-Drew is a former No. 1 coming off two injury-marred seasons, while Jones had just 48 carries for the Steelers last season and did not show the big-play speed he had when the Cowboys made him a first-round selection.

The rest of the backs in the groups, especially Blount, have flashed at times, but the Broncos aren't looking for a potential No. 1, but rather a back who can support their homegrown No. 1. The draft also factors in with the coming rookie class with some depth in the middle rounds for those willing to live with some growing pains that come with a younger player.

Bottom line: Free agency has not been kind to this high-impact position. As a result, the Broncos, with Ball set to be the lead guy, will take a look for a player who can take some carries from time to time and function in the team's offense, but they have bigger needs with bigger dollars to spend elsewhere on the depth chart.