ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The competition to watch at running back this summer is for the No. 2 spot. But that doesn't mean that the progress of projected starter Montee Ball does not warrant attention in the next month.
Ball, the Broncos' second-round pick last year, made rapid progress late last season as a runner and pass protector in relief of starter Knowshon Moreno. From Week 13 through Super Bowl XLVIII, Ball averaged more yards per carry than Moreno, who signed with the Miami Dolphins in March.
Ball's only regret was that his stellar play didn't arrive sooner.
"It started happening around Week 12 and you started to see it. I started playing better. A lot more confidence," he said. "I wish I had done that early on because I always tell myself, imagine where I would have been at, at the end of the year last year, if I started fast. So that's what I'm doing this year, starting fast and keeping it going every week."
But nothing will determine his success or failure more than his ability to protect Peyton Manning. He was beaten by a blitz in the second week of the preseason at Seattle, but grew more comfortable as his workload increased late in the season.
"Instead of being a little nervous in the backfield with Peyton, now I'm completely calm," Ball said. "I can anticipate some of the calls he's going to make, which like I said, allows me to play faster."
Adding a bit of weight should help Ball as a blocker; he was at 220 pounds during organized team activities and plans to play the regular season at 218.
Hillman, like Ball, has the draft pedigree; running backs aren't taken in the third round to watch in sweatsuits from the sideline. But after falling down the depth chart last year to the point where he was inactive for the entire postseason, he knows he has to re-prove himself in every way. Hillman admitted that he "relaxed" last year, and it cost him; he carried just 15 times for 36 yards after Week 7.
"You've just got to be accountable," Hillman said. "You've got to work, and make the least mistakes you can, and just be able to show them that they can depend on you. I'm pretty sure that will go a long way."
Hillman said in June he weighed 201 pounds, more than he did last year and his highest measured total since a 200-pound figure at the 2012 Scouting Combine. But during OTAs, he looked faster and more decisive than at this time last year.
"I don't feel like I lost any speed. I just feel like I became more explosive, if anything," Hillman said.
For C.J. Anderson, mental growth is also crucial. He played 22 snaps last year -- enough to get a taste of the NFL, and also to experience what Manning wants from his running back.
"Last year when I got my chance out there with Peyton, I was a little shaky, a little nervous," Anderson said. "This year, it's so much easier. Whenever Peyton wants to make a call or change anything, I know what's going on, and I see the same things he sees, and I can play a lot faster and really show my ability, instead of just showing flashes like I did last year."
It would be a mild surprise if none of the other four running backs makes the team in some capacity, either on the 53-man roster or on the practice squad. Anderson's success in sticking on the roster last year showed the Broncos' willingness to keep an undrafted rookie -- even one recovering from a knee injury, as Anderson was when the regular season began.
The competition among rookies Kapri Bibbs, Brennan Clay and Juwan Thompson, and first-year back Jerodis Williams, is difficult to handicap right now. Williams and Bibbs had the most college production, Clay could be the best all-around back, and Thompson has size and receiving ability. None possess the same skill set. The Broncos' choice for a potential practice-squad spot could depend on what skills they need most.
No matter who makes it, there'll be plenty of work to go around, and being a backup won't diminish the possibilities.
"The way I look at our running backs is, we're going to have two to three guys playing every game, and whoever the first guy on the field is, it's irrelevant," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
RUNNING BACKS: THE BASICS
Montee Ball:** Although there is scant chance that Ball will ever carry the football as much as he did at Wisconsin, he should be much busier than he was last year, when he averaged 7.8 carries per game and never had more than 15 rushes in a contest. One promising statistic is that Ball averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in five of the last six regular-season games, then averaged 5.2 yards per rush in the postseason opener against San Diego. He did a better job reading his blocks, which led to the improvement.
Ronnie Hillman: A third year in Denver brings a third uniform number, as he now sports jersey number 23, hoping that it brings different individual results than the previous two. "I just wanted to try something new, and I had the opportunity to switch, and I made the switch," said Hillman, who recalled that his "old mentor" Willis McGahee also wore No. 23, but added there was "nothing special" about the new number.
C.J. Anderson: Against New England last November, Anderson found himself on the field in overtime after Moreno needed a breather on his 37-carry night. Ball had lost a fumble earlier, and Anderson played 10 snaps -- nearly half of the 22 offensive plays he saw during the regular season.
Kapri Bibbs: The most productive of the Broncos' three undrafted rookie running backs, Bibbs slipped into the undrafted pool after struggling at the Combine, particularly in the speed drills. He ran for 1,741 yards last year, his only season at Colorado State after bouncing through the junior-college ranks, with stops at two different schools. He has lower mileage than most running backs with this level of production, but he'll need to show a breakaway threat to have a chance to stick.
Brennan Clay: He's usually played bigger than his 202-pound frame -- which is six pounds more than his weight at February's Scouting Combine. He also has the capability to catch passes out of the backfield, even though he was rarely in a position to turn those receptions into explosive plays. Clay can do a lot of things reasonably well; will that be enough for him to distinguish himself from the crowd?
Juwan Thompson: David Cutcliffe's offense at Duke spread the football liberally among its skill-position players, so Thompson wasn't the every-down threat and had to maximize the chances he was given. At 225 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, he could be a bruising threat between the tackles, and the air-centric Duke offense also allowed him to develop as a receiver, with 56 catches in his college career. He could also fill multiple roles on special teams, which is reminiscent of former Bronco Lance Ball.
Jerodis Williams: A veteran of last year's training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, Williams has 4.51 speed (from his Pro Day in 2013) and back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Furman University on his ledger. He also has experience as a kickoff returner, which earned him FCS All-America honors from multiple outlets. Williams has good straight-line speed, but will need to turn that into some big runs to have a chance at a spot.
NOTE: This is the last of the training camp position previews. Get caught up on the rest of the series: