ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- What becomes of Knowshon Moreno?
That's the first and most important question for the Broncos as free agency dawns. He is expected to test the market, as Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway noted would be the case with his team's free agents at the NFL Scouting Combine.
But what will he find on the market? Rare is the running back who receives the break-the-bank contract, and even though it only takes one team to offer a surprisingly lucrative deal, teams may wonder about Moreno's middling production prior to 2011, when he began improving in earnest before tearing his ACL at Kansas City that November.
What Denver knows is that Moreno matured on and off the field, which helped make his renaissance possible. Another team may see that and think they can continue the process; if they break the bank for a deal, that would likely hand the Broncos' reins to 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball, with Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson and at least one more runner to be named later via free agency, the draft and/or the undrafted pool.
But the door does not appear to be closed on a Moreno return. "Testing the market" doesn't mean his departure is a certainty. His status will bear close monitoring next week.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Knowshon Moreno, Denver: Is it the Broncos' offense that yields open lanes underneath, or Moreno's personal and professional growth that allowed him to have a career year in 2013? It's probably a bit of both. Moreno was an ideal back for the Broncos' scheme, an adept blocker, runner and receiver who was so effective in every situation that he only needed to come off the field for rest, and not for skill set or effectiveness.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville: Although he hasn't been as prolific as he has been earlier in his career, Jones-Drew has been effective -- although his average of 3.4 yards per carry last year was a career low -- and could enjoy a renaissance with a title contender. Jones-Drew turns 29 later this month and already has 2,012 career touches to his name (including receptions and returns). That workload might give some teams pause and will likely bring his price down. But this is a running back who averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in all but two of his eight previous seasons, and even last year averaged one first down every 4.9 touches -- although that was off his career average of one every 3.9.
Ben Tate, Houston: After being the second half of the Texans' one-two rushing punch with Arian Foster, Tate appears set to become a primary runner after moving on from Houston. Tate has averaged 4.7 yards per carry, flourished when given opportunities for extensive work and seems poised to become someone's No. 1 back by this time next week.
LeGarrette Blount, New England:After consecutive 100-yard games leading into the AFC Championship was about how the Broncos would defuse the 247-pound bowling ball. Terrance Knighton pretty well took care of that, and the Patriots moved away from the run quickly. Nevertheless, New England probably gave up on Blount too quickly that day. The Patriots have cycled through running backs quickly in recent years and might not be willing to give Blount the kind of contract he could expect on the market after re-establishing himself as an effective big back.
Rashad Jennings, Oakland: Jennings found his groove last year with Oakland, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, 8.1 yards per reception and picking up a first down once every 4.3 touches, a rate similar to what his teammate, Darren McFadden, amassed before his 2011 foot injury. The only negative on Jennings is his age; he turns 29 later this month. But with just 497 touches (including returns) in his previous five seasons, he's a low-mileage back who is quicker than his size (231 pounds) would indicate. Jennings is perhaps the best bargain of the class.
Darren McFadden, Oakland: McFadden has not been the same since suffering a Lisfranc injury in 2011. Before it, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry, 5.7 yards every time he touched the football and moved the sticks once every 4.3 touches. In the two years since, his per-carry average is just 3.3 yards, his per-touch average is 3.7 yards, and he only gained a first down once every 6.2 touches. By the end of last year, Jennings was easily outpacing him and had become the Raiders' primary back.
James Starks, Green Bay:A career 4.4-yards-per-carry rusher, Starks had his most efficient season last year. Starks averaged 5.5 yards per rush and 8.9 yards per reception with four touchdowns -- one every 24.8 times he touched the football -- as he spelled Eddie Lacy. His value on the market will be determined by whether anyone sees the 28-year-old, 218-pounder as a No. 1 back, or the second part of a platoon.
Andre Brown, N.Y. Giants: Briefly a Bronco during the 2010 season, Brown has had multiple leg injuries the last two years, but in the 10 starts he made in that span averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 82.9 yards from scrimmage per game. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry after returning from a preseason leg injury last year, but if he has recovered, could be a bargain.
Donald Brown, Indianapolis: A No. 2 back throughout his career, Brown had his most efficient and prolific season in 2013, setting career highs for yardage per carry (5.3), total touchdowns (eight), yards from scrimmage (751) and receiving yardage (214 on 27 receptions). He might not be a top back, but as part of a platoon, he is effective and will attract suitors for that specific role.
Willis McGahee, Cleveland: There wasn't a stampede to pursue McGahee after the Broncos released him last June, largely due to his age (he turned 33 in October) and tread on his tires (he went over the 2,000-carry mark for his career last season). McGahee didn't fare well, averaging 2.7 yards per carry behind an offensive line that featured one first-team and one second-team All-Pro selection. ESPNCleveland.com noted that McGahee has said he wants to play four more years (LINK: http://espncleveland.com/common/more.php?m=49&action=blog&r=17&post_id=28341). I salute his optimism, but given his injury history, age and previous workload, that's not happening.
Leon Washington, Tennessee: Washington is more of a kickoff returner than a running back at this point in his career, but at that, he is still devastatingly effective. The Broncos saw that Dec. 8 when he sprinted 95 yards to set up a Titans touchdown. He's also reliable; in the past three years, he's averaged just one fumble every 36.5 returns. (To compare, the Broncos have averaged one fumble every 12.8 kickoff and punt returns the last two years.)
Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona: In a cryptic blog post to the Huffington Post, he concluded by writing, "And as I write this, today is the day that the journey is over and I am fully at peace. Eagerly looking to a new way, which lies ahead." The Cardinals seem prepared to make Andre Ellington their primary back; he averaged 5.5 yards per carry to Mendenhall's 3.2 last year.
OTHERS: Kahlil Bell, Green Bay; Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis; Ronnie Brown, San Diego; Delone Carter, Jacksonville; Anthony Dixon, San Francisco; Jonathan Dwyer, Pittsburgh; Toby Gerhart, Minnesota; Ray Graham, Houston; Jonathan Grimes, Houston; Peyton Hillis, N.Y. Giants; Rashad Jennings, Oakland; Felix Jones, Pittsburgh; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville; Deji Karim, Houston; Spencer Larsen, Tampa Bay; Brian Leonard, Tampa Bay; Tauren Poole, Indianapolis; Darius Reynaud, N.Y. Jets; Bernard Scott, Baltimore; Chad Spann, Houston; LaRod Stephens-Howling, Pittsburgh; George Winn, Dallas.
STREET FREE AGENTS
Tashard Choice, ex-Indianapolis; Michael Hill, ex-Tampa Bay.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Joique Bell, Detroit: Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told reporters at the Combine that he intended to tender Bell, and that he'd be back, even if they didn't work out a long-term deal. Bell wasn't spectacular, but was steady, and finished with 1,097 yards from scrimmage.
Bobby Rainey, Tampa Bay: Fantasy owners got to know him during his late-season burst after Doug Martin was lost for the year. In the last eight games of the season, he scored six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving) and ran for 566 yards, which put him on pace for 1,132 yards over a full season. That was good enough to get him a two-year contract.
OTHERS:Herb Donaldson, Tennessee; Da'Rel Scott, N.Y. Giants, Alfonso Smith, Arizona; Phillip Tanner, Dallas; Jordan Todman, Jacksonville.