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Montee Ball's long, hot summer has resulted in slide down Broncos' depth chart

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was just a couple calendar pages ago – June – when Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball was talking about an offseason filled with focus, of hard work, to get back what was once his.

And that was the starting running back job.

“As of right now I’m second; I’m behind C.J. [Anderson]," Ball said in June. “But I’m sure it’s going to be a 1-A, 1-B style and we’re looking forward to it. … The only thing I can do is work and fight back to get the No. 1 spot. But let’s say I do fight back and get the No. 1 spot, they can’t keep C.J. on the bench based off what he did. They most definitely have to use both of us.’’

This time last year, Ball was at the front of the line. Saturday night, as the Broncos closed out their third preseason game, Ball was the fourth running back into the game. The Broncos may indeed have a 1-A, 1-B look, but Ball is no longer in position to be the second back in line.

Anderson has remained the starter, but in the weeks and months since the Broncos' work in June, Ronnie Hillman has moved into the No. 2 spot, and Juwan Thompson was the third back into the game Saturday night. Thompson is a multi-tasker, a coveted skill set among the roster-builders, in that he can play running back and fullback to go with a full allotment of special-teams duties.

As a result Ball is the team’s fourth-leading rusher of the preseason with 41 yards on his 16 carries (a 2.5-yards per carry average). He played just 10 snaps against the Houston Texans in the second preseason game and 11 snaps Saturday night against the 49ers.

With roster cuts looming over the next week -- rosters go to 75 by Tuesday, 53 by Saturday -- Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was asked following Saturday’s game about Ball’s slide down the depth chart.

“I think [Thompson] … got all of the late caries in the game,’’ Kubiak said. “There's nothing Montee's done. It's hard to get four guys carries in a game. He continues to work hard. Special teams is a big factor with him and Juwan as far as playing on a regular basis. We'll see. I'm fine with Montee. I wish there would be more [total carries]. I promise you they'll probably be plenty to go around on Thursday.’’

The Broncos close out the preseason Thursday night against the Arizona Cardinals. With the Broncos' regulars not expected to play, the game does present itself as an opportunity for Ball to show the Broncos, or anyone else in the league, what he can do.

There are several teams around the league who need help at running back, led by the Cleveland Browns, who have not publicly ruled out bringing in former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

At this point Ball would still project to be one of four running backs the Broncos would keep at the cut to 53 players. But because of Thompson’s full slate of special-teams work, Ball would also face the real possibility of being a game day inactive if the team’s other backs were healthy.

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said running back is a position “where we have a lot of tough decisions to make, but that’s good because that means you got some depth.’’ Elway has also lauded Hillman’s jump in the preseason as well.

“He’s looked great throughout camp and even OTAs,’’ Elway said. “I think this offense fits him very well. ... He adds that added juice, the change-of-pace kind of guy that we need.’’

Ball played in just five games last year because of a groin injury he suffered in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Ball tried to play six games later (Nov. 9 against the St. Louis Rams), but was not ready to play and finished the season on injured reserve. He was the Broncos’ second-round pick in the 2013 draft and averaged 4.7 yards per carry as a rookie.

“We have a lot of good football players and this is always the hardest time of the year because we have to cut down to eventually 53,’’ Elway said of the coming roster reductions. “ … This is tough time of year, but we’re fortunate in the fact that we’ve got a lot of tough decisions. Hopefully we can make the right ones.’’