ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In a decision Head Coach John Fox described as being "very hard," the Broncos announced that they had parted ways with 11-year NFL veteran running back Willis McGahee on Thursday morning – just hours prior to the final practice of the team's minicamp session.
At the nucleus of the organization's decision, according to Fox, was the importance of maintaining a young backfield of contributors who are well-equipped for the Broncos' offense in 2013 – and beyond.
"It gives us a better opportunity to give some of these young guys more reps," Fox said after Thursday's minicamp session, noting that the progress rookie Montee Ball, second-year Ronnie Hillman, and fifth-year Knowshon Moreno have made in the offseason influenced the decision. "It's just a conscious decision for us to get younger."
"I have great, great respect for Willis McGahee."
The team's leading rusher in the past two seasons, McGahee brought a steady consistency to the Broncos' ground game – making contributions to the team that Fox praised repeatedly.
"(McGahee) did a great job for us, leading rusher," Fox said. "He was one of our first signees when we came in here to get this thing turned around and it's an unfortunate part about this business. But he did a great job for us."
McGahee's former companions in the Broncos backfield were shocked by the release – and had powerful words of praise for McGahee's leadership and contributions on the field.
"It definitely was a shock," Moreno said. "You hate to see anyone go, especially family, especially in your room. It's just a tough thing in our business you have to go through. We'll miss him and I know he'll do well wherever he goes."
McGahee was cited as a mentor figure for the team's young core of running backs.
"The couple days I had with McGahee were kind of special because the guy is a great man," Ball said. "He's a great man and I most definitely wish him the best.
"It's a sad day for me because he was a real mentor to me so I'm sad to hear that," Hillman added.
McGahee rushed for 1,930 yards and 8 touchdowns for the Broncos over the past two seasons, but a torn ligament in his right knee in a November game against the San Diego Chargers ended his 2012 campaign.
Absent from OTAs due to what he had described as family reasons, McGahee practiced with the Broncos for the first time at Tuesday's minicamp session – and Fox noted that the organization wanted to see McGahee in action before making the decision.
"We made that decision and we wanted to see him move around," Fox said. "We hadn't made a lot of changes. He was coming off of a season-ending injury, so we hadn't seen him since the end of the season. It was pretty much a natural sequence there."
Fox mentioned that McGahee's injury did influence the team's decision, but that the knee should not be a factor for the rugged running back moving forward.
"Not really," Fox said in response to a question about McGahee's knee being a concern in the future. "If there's something there, [Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos] sees it. Any injury concerns you, especially when you're playing football. I think, in fairness to him, the things he's done for us—this gives him a better opportunity to hook on somewhere."
McGahee's departure now places the focus on the Broncos' slew of young runners to fill his productivity – and Ball noted that business must continue as usual in the backfield.
"Well I'm sure it's no secret that all of us, with one person missing, our reps are going to increase," Ball said. "For me, I'm approaching every day like I did before when he was here and even before when he wasn't here, during OTAs. I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing."
Hillman added that McGahee's departure will not affect the competitiveness for the starting position.
"It's always open," Hillman said. "I was competing with [RB] Knowshon [Moreno], [RB] Montee [Ball], 'J.J.' (RB Jeremiah Johnson), so there's still a lot of competition. Just because he's gone you can't write it in but like I said, I'm just trying to compete and earn more playing time like the rest of them."