ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --When Knowshon Moreno reeled off back-to-back 100-yard games against the Raiders and Ravens last December, it seemed that Willis McGahee, a Pro Bowler just a year earlier, had become a forgotten man among observers while he recovered from a knee injury suffered in a Week 11 win over San Diego.
But in the Broncos' offices, McGahee was very much in their plans. Had Denver defeated Baltimore in the divisional round, McGahee would have been eligible to come off of injured reserve the following week, having received the one designated-to-return exemption teams were allowed last year. And even though Moreno answered questions about his durability and consistency in his six-game starting stint, he hobbled off the field in the playoff loss with an knee injury.
McGahee never had the chance to return, but as the Broncos look at their pre-draft roster, the 31-year-old running back has a prominent place.
"Well, with where we are right now, with (Willis) McGahee, he is that big back for us right now," Elway said. "But, I think that if you look at what we have with Ronnie Hillman, he is that 190-pounder, that change-of-pace-type guy."
That isn't to say the Broncos won't look for a big back in the draft -- as Elway emphasized, the big-back role is McGahee's "right now." But if they pick one from a group that includes Alabama's Eddie Lacy (5-foot-11, 231 pounds), Wisconsin's Montee Ball (5-foot-11, 214 pounds), Arkansas' Knile Davis (5-foot-10, 227 pounds), Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and Texas A&M's Christine Michael (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), they'll do because they feel he's the best player available, not because they're pressured to replace McGahee.
"We look at Willis as being that guy who is going to be the big back for us right now," Elway said, "and then we'll see what happens in the draft."
If McGahee is the "big back" and Hillman is the "change of pace," Moreno might be in the same role in which he began the 2012 season -- on standby, a valuable insurance policy if someone gets injured. Having a back of Moreno's experience in that role is a luxury few teams possess.
But if asked to choose between Moreno and McGahee, the decision is tough. McGahee is older, but averaged 0.6 more yards per carry. He fumbled five times to Moreno's one, but their career fumble ratios are nearly identical -- Moreno has fumbled once every 77.9 touches while McGahee has fumbled once per 77.1 touches -- and there's reason to believe that McGahee's spate of fumbles last year was a statistical outlier.
If the Broncos don't see anyone they like at their draft spots, going into the season with Moreno, McGahee, Hillman, Lance Ball, Jacob Hester, Mario Fannin and practice-squad holdover Jeremiah Johnson isn't the worst fate. All but Fannin have regular-season experience; Fannin's struggles have been a result of bad luck: two knee injuries in as many years during training camp.
That the Broncos have kept Fannin around for so long in spite of the knee problems shows their faith in his potential, but above all he needs to stay healthy if he is to turn the bursts of promise he's shown on the practice field into game-time results.
Even if the Broncos don't draft a running back, there will undoubtedly be attrition from the current group of seven; it would be an upset if more than four made the roster, with Hester perhaps sticking as a hybrid fullback/running back after the Broncos let go of Chris Gronkowski, their only "pure" fullback in 2012. But it will likely take a stunning camp -- or perhaps an injury -- for Johnson or Fannin to knock off the status quo, if that's what the Broncos carry into the summer.