Let’s take a close look at some of the biggest offseason questions for the Broncos at running back:
Is Moreno an elite back? The correct answer on Knowshon Moreno is “too soon to tell,” and the team seems to believe he can live up to his draft status. But, it’s fair to say the Broncos need more out of the 12th pick of the 2009 draft than what they got last season. Moreno had only two 20-yard runs and a 3.8-yard average, both of which ranked pretty low among the league leaders in carries.
That doesn’t mean Moreno can’t be an elite back – Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson are two backs that had similar rookie profiles and became all-pro players. But Denver needs him to have a good, healthy offseason and make a nice step in 2010. The Broncos could have a shot at Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, the top running back prospect this season, but investing their first-round pick on him seems a bit wasteful. Their best bet is to hope Moreno becomes a star in his second season. He needs to be more explosive and provide some big plays. He can’t be an elite player getting a 20-yard run once every eight games.
Where’s the depth? Correll Buckhalter had a very good season. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was a fantastic second back in the offense. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be effective again in 2010. But, at some point he will slow down (he turns 32 in October) and the NFL is a multiple-back league. The roster is pretty thin after Buckhalter (we’ll get to Peyton Hillis in a moment) and it would make sense for the Broncos to draft a back this season in the middle to late rounds, or get a young free agent with some upside – which is what they tried to do with J.J. Arrington last season. McDaniels likes having depth at tailback and adding to that position has to be on his radar this offseason.
What about Hillis? While Josh McDaniels said the right things about Hillis, Denver’s leading rusher in 2008, everyone is well aware that Hillis didn’t play nearly enough to satisfy fans this season. And, there’s not much reason to believe that will change in 2010. When coaching staffs change, they have very little loyalty to old players. Yes, standouts like Ryan Clady and Daniel Graham won’t be cast aside, but this coaching staff wasn’t around for Hillis’ solid stretch of games at tailback in 2008. All they have seen from him is a player who didn’t get much playing time and, understandably, seemed to press when he did. McDaniels joked to the media about nobody asking him about Hillis after he failed to pick up a third-and-1 attempt against Philadelphia, and that says what you need to know. This staff’s impression of Hillis is more the guy who got stuffed at Philadelphia and less of the rookie who ran so powerfully down the stretch two years ago.
Assuming the Broncos add a tailback behind Moreno and Buckhalter, Hillis could be on his way out. In fact, after how he was used in 2009, I’d be a bit surprised if he was back for another season in Denver. And, I’d assume there’s at least one coach who will be very interested in his services.