ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --With a pair of former first rounders surrounded by young players with starting experience, the offensive backfield looks to be one of the Broncos' biggest strengths in 2012.
"In my room, it's a unique situation," Running Backs Coach Eric Studesville said. "I have a tremendous room. Willis (McGahee) certainly brings back a veteran leadership and did a great job for us last year and he's going to come back and we have big expectations for him. Lance Ball is another guy that contributed a ton for us last year and is extremely dependable and able to go in and play. I have great confidence in his ability. Certainly Knowshon (Moreno) is in there, coming off that knee injury and we're excited about him coming back and where he is right now."
McGahee, who enters his 10th season in the NFL and second in Denver fresh off one of the best years of his career, headlines the group. A year ago, he broke the 100-yard mark seven times, scored five rushing touchdowns and was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career. Much of McGahee's success in 2011 could certainly have been attributed to the huge holes opened up by his offensive line, but his average yards per carry of 4.8 proved that the veteran running back remains as explosive as ever.
A number of players will be vying for carries, including fourth-year man Knowshown Moreno. As a rookie in 2009, Moreno ran the ball 247 times for 947 yards and seven touchdowns before picking up 779 yards and five more rushing touchdowns in 2010. Injuries limited Moreno in 2011, when he started just two games and carried the ball only 37 times. But when called upon last season, Moreno was effective, as evidenced by his 4.8 yards per carry.
One of the most intriguing players in Denver's backfield is rooke running back Ronnie Hillman, who the Broncos drafted in the third round of this year's NFL Draft. In just two seasons as a San Diego State Aztec, Hillman was electrifying. He gained 3,423 yards, good for third-best in school history. Hillman started 20 of 26 games and found the end zone 36 times on the ground and twice through the air. And remarkably, 19 of Hillman's TD runs covered 20 yards or more, including nine of at least 40 yards and six that covered 50 or more yards. With 1,711 yards rushing in 2011, Hillman set a new SDSU record, breaking the previous program best set by Marshall Faulk. Hillman will immediately have an opportunity in training camp to show off his speed as both a return man and running back.
"We did quite a bit of work on him, watching his tape from this past year and watching him play at San Diego State," Studesville said of Hillman. "He's a dynamic young player coming out and you saw that on tape, you saw how he played. We got a chance to meet with him and be around him a little bit at the combine, so you got kind of a sense of who he was and how he worked. We just felt like he was going to be a great addition for us and would bring a spark to us and we're excited about having him."
Another running back fans should keep an eye on is Lance Ball. Ball enters his fourth season in the NFL having picked up 560 yards on 137 carries over the past two seasons with Broncos. Last season marked the first time in Ball's career that he saw action in all 16 regular-season games. He was productive, gaining 402 yards rushing on 96 carries and 148 more yards receiving on 16 catches. He found the end zone twice, once on the ground and once through the air.
The primary blocking backs for the Broncos this season will be Chris Gronkowski and Austin Sylvester. Gronkowski joined the Broncos after spending his first two seasons in the NFL with Indianapolis and Dallas, where he started a total of seven games in 2010 and 2011. With a versatile background including experience as an H-back and linebacker at the University of Arizona in addition to collegiate baseball experience as a Wildcat, Gronkowski's athleticism should create matchup problems for opposing linebackers and also make him a valuable asset as a special teamer. He arrived in Denver via trade on May 23, 2012.
Denver's other fullback, Sylvester, enters the 2012 season looking to help clear lanes for his fellow running backs and contribute on special teams.
MEET THE RUNNING BACKS
Lance Ball: Ball is entering his fourth season in the NFL coming off a strong 2011 campaign. A season ago, Ball ran the ball 96 times for more than 400 yards and added 148 yards receiving on 16 catches.
Mario Fannin: Fannin enters his second season in the NFL looking to bounce back from a knee injury that sidelined him throughout 2011. In 54 games, including 16 starts, at Auburn, Fannin set the school record for receiving yards by a running back with 985.
Chris Gronkowski: The Broncos acquired Gronkowski, who spent last season in Indianapolis, in a trade in late May. Gronkowski will likely work as both a fullback and an H-back, clearing holes in the running game and also serving as a safety valve for quarterback Peyton Manning.
Ronnie Hillman: Selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, Hillman's burst should make him a player to watch in the running game, passing game and also on special teams.
Jeremiah Johnson: Johnson, a former Oregon Duck, enters his third season in the NFL after gaining 77 yards rushing on 14 carries and catching seven passes for 62 yards in 2011.
Willis McGahee: McGahee arrived in Denver last season and wasted no time proving that his legs were as fresh as ever, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl with 1,199 rushing yards.
Knowshon Moreno: An injury hampered Moreno a season ago, but with a full offseason to recover and prepare for the 2012 season, Moreno should be an effective complement to McGahee in an imposing duo of former first round draft picks.
Xavier Omon: Omon enters his third season in the league after spending the past two seasons on practice squads in Denver, Cleveland, San Francisco and with the N.Y. Jets. Omon was a sixth-round draft pick selected by Buffalo in 2008 after rushing for 7,073 yards for Division II Northwest Missouri State, becoming the third player in college football history to top the 7,000-yard mark.
Austin Sylvester: Sylvester is a reserve fullback in his second year as a Bronco. He spent 2010 and 2011 on practice squads in Denver and Tampa Bay before returning to the Mile High City this offseason. A former Washington Husky, Sylvester played in 37 games, including six starts, for Washington.