ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Throughout 2013, Montee Ball accepted his role as the understudy, but prepared as though he would someday be atop the depth chart.
That day could be at hand. With Knowshon Moreno an unrestricted free agent, Ball is atop the list of running backs under contract. Fellow 2013 rookie C.J. Anderson was behind him on the depth chart and saw occasional work in the latter stages of last season, and 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman showed flashes early last year, but was inactive or did not play in nine of the last 12 games, including playoffs.
The Broncos added former Furman University running back Jerodis Williams in January when they signed him to a reserve-future contract. But unless Moreno returns, the future of the Broncos' ground game could be in Ball's hands.
And he believes he's ready.
"Of course. I really think so. I really believe that," Ball said in January. "If it's an unfortunate situation for him that he's not here next year, I'll most definitely be able to carry that role."
After overcoming a crucial fumble at New England, Ball showed that he was ready for more extensive work. From that moment forward, he averaged 5.38 yards on the 73 carries he amassed over the next eight games.
It would be overblown to say that the fumble was a turning point, but the uptick in Ball's performance was clear.
"He realized how critical every time you touch the ball is in the NFL," Running Backs Coach Eric Studesville said. "Not that it wasn't important before that, but I think sometimes maybe, it's a little bit of an eye-opener."
That can't be taught or learned through extra studying and practice time. But it was a crucial lesson, as much as any that he learned from his time working with Peyton Manning.
"Every day at practice we would work on something. (Manning) would ask me, 'What do you think you need help in?' I would tell him I need help with this route or this play," Ball said. "Then we would work on it right after practice before we even go to our meetings."
But his progress as a receiving target and his ability to better read the blocks in front of him paled next to his own growth as a blocker.
If you can't pick up the blitz, you won't last long as a running back in the Broncos' offense. That is one of the two deadly sins, the other being a predilection for fumbles. Ball had to face that head-long after missing a block on Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner in the preseason.
"I just think he's a tremendously prideful young man, and he saw that, and said, 'You know what, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that this doesn't happen again, because I don't want that to be on tape; I don't want that to be reflective of me,' and I think he's worked at it extremely hard," Studesville said. "We talked about it constantly -- the importance of pass protection, along with everything else. I just think his personal pride is one of the qualities that you love about having him in the room, that he is very prideful."
That will help if he ends up as the starter. Ball has a high standard to meet if he is asked to replace Moreno, who in 2013 became the first Bronco to have 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season.
Moreno is still unsigned nearly a week into free agency, which is less a commentary on him than on how the value of running backs has changed in recent years.
This is most evident in the draft, where first-round running backs have become rare. A decade ago, a running back of Ball's resume would have been selected late in the first round or early in the second; last year, he lingered until the 58th overall pick.
By extension, that means Hillman, a third-rounder in 2012, might have been taken a round earlier, and Anderson wouldn't have slipped into the pile of undrafted backs. But Anderson emerged from that mass and ended up making the team on the basis of a strong training camp before he injured his knee in practice.
Anderson led Broncos running backs in average per carry, although he had just seven regular-season rushes last year. Hillman needs to recover from a frustrating season in which he was de-emphasized after a goal-to-go fumble at Indianapolis in Week 6.
As the Broncos look toward the draft, the composition of the position group is far from closed. The freedom to select the best player available could lead to an addition, and the success of Anderson shows what the undrafted pool can yield.
But if Moreno doesn't return, Ball has pole position -- and he appears ready for it.