- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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Maybe it would be different for Knowshon Moreno if some things had happened more quickly for him than they did. Or maybe it would be different if some things hadn't happened at all.
But in the wake of a season in which he finally turned potential into production for the Denver Broncos -- when he rebounded from injuries, grew up and became the most reliable option in the Broncos' run game -- Moreno will soon be one of the most proven running backs on the open market.
Because that's where the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway, said all of the team's unrestricted free agents were headed with "I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those [contracts]."
After Montee Ball missed a blitz pickup in a preseason loss in Seattle and quarterback Peyton Manning took what was perhaps the biggest hit he's taken in his Broncos tenure, Moreno was largely the running back of choice in any situation. Moreno became the best option in pass protection when the Broncos were in their three-wide-receiver set, which was on roughly three of every four plays they ran last season, and he was the top choice in the run game as well.
And when all was said and done in the team's record-setting performance on offense, Moreno -- a player whose maturity, preparation and attention span were questioned at times in his first five seasons in Denver -- was suddenly the standard bearer.
Moreno's a guy who, as running backs coach Eric Studesville put it, "if one of our other guys wants to see how to do it, how to come to work and work, no matter where you are on the depth chart, Knowshon is the guy to look at ... I always say, I'd like to think I played a small role in that, but Knowshon did that. Knowshon made himself into what he is."
Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards (his first 1,000-yard season) and scored 10 rushing touchdowns, one of five Broncos players with at least 10 touchdowns last season. He also caught 60 passes and three more touchdowns. Toss in the fact he was the best option as a pass protector in the backfield as well, and the Broncos have plenty of work to spread around in a run game that is expected to be a priority in the coming months.
"When you talk about Knowshon, he had a tremendous year for us," Elway said. "You look at the year -- he was reliable, he caught the ball, ran the football for us and was also tremendous in pass protection. Knowshon was a big part of what we did this year."
But Moreno had a torn ACL repaired in 2011 to go with a stem-cell procedure on his knee last offseason after he was injured in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He also missed much of two training camps early in his career with injuries and the Broncos have begun the plan to move on over the past two years having selected Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the 2012 draft and Ball in the second round of the 2013 draft.
Moreno will turn 27 in July, so in the world of running backs he's still considered by personnel executives to have some miles left on the career odometer. The knee injuries will be a concern for some evaluators, especially if Moreno's representatives are looking for a longer-term deal.
The Broncos could give Moreno a look later in free agency on their terms, but he is expected to draw a better offer elsewhere.
The Broncos will look for Ball to go from productive No. 2 option -- 559 yards rushing at 4.7 yards per carry this past season -- to starter in the coming weeks. Ball, who lost three fumbles by Nov. 24 last season, settled in nicely the rest of the way, playing well down the stretch and into the postseason. Ball also caught 20 passes last season and his role in the passing game will be the part of his skill set that will need the most attention in the offseason. With Manning at quarterback, the No. 1 back in the Broncos' offense is always going to be a threat for 50 receptions.
Hillman is facing a critical offseason. The Broncos handed him the starting job last May and into training camp.
Not only did Hillman not keep the job, he didn't respond well with the competition as the season wore on and was a non-factor for much of the year and especially in the postseason.
There is a crop of bigger running backs in this draft -- there were 17 running backs at this year's scouting combine who weighed in at 218 pounds or more compared to 10 at the 2013 combine and 14 in 2012 -- and the Broncos will give several of those runners a long look in the draft.
But in the end they certainly like what Moreno became this past season. Now they want Ball to be all that, and perhaps even a little more.
4dEric D. Williams