In 2011, Willis McGahee was really an unsung hero among Tebow-Mania in Denver. After signing a pretty modest free agent deal, the former Ravens running back was quietly a Pro Bowl player for the Denver Broncos on their way to an 8-8 season and a first place finish in the AFC West.
In 2012, McGahee’s injuries held him to just 10 games, and backup Knowshon Moreno also suffered an injury toward the end of last season. Needless to say, the Broncos did not feel settled about the running back position heading into the 2013 offseason.
That’s why they spent a second round draft choice on Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, who was one of the most prolific running backs in college football history. As a junior in 2011, Ball pretty much dominated anyone and everyone who stood in his path, to the tune of 33 rushing touchdowns, six receiving touchdowns, and he even threw a touchdown pass to Russell Wilson, now the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen had a pretty loud endorsement for who might be the Broncos’ featured back in 2013, and you better believe McGahee heard it, wherever he is.
“It is absolutely the rookie Montee Ball from Wisconsin,” said Mortensen, “He gets ‘it.’ He’s got ‘it.’ In other words, he’s dedicated, he’s a pro, and he’s got talent. … Montee Ball, watch out.”
As for Peyton Manning, he’s not overly impressed by McGahee’s absence at voluntary OTAs, but he believes the former Miami Hurricanes star can still help the team.
“The players that aren’t here — there are individual and specific situations. Whether there is a business decision being made on Willis’ part on his side or on the Broncos’ side, that is kind of to be determined. I’ll say this: Willis was a great help to me last year,” Manning said. “When he got hurt last year, that was a blow to our team. We really kind of replaced him by committee. Knowshon and crew really did a good job of stepping up, but there’s no question Willis was a big help to me last year and our team. But, like I said, we’ll see how these next few weeks and how it plays out here.”
So what does Manning say about the rookie?
“I have taken Montee after practice each day and just kind of going through plays, going through games, getting him comfortable hearing audibles at the line of scrimmage,” Manning told reporters in Denver. “We are going to count on him in a big way this year. He’s a rookie, but Coach (John) Fox is not going to bring him along slowly. We are going to put him in there and make him a contributor this year. So, the more repetitions we can get out here talking football, talking scenarios, I think the more comfortable he’ll be once the regular season gets here.”
It sounds more like Manning is preparing Ball for a playoff game than running through the playbook at OTAs. He is putting Ball through the full gauntlet, and according to all the sources we have around Denver, Ball is turning heads in the best way possible–on and off the field.
Personally, and this is just my own opinion, but I think Willis McGahee and the Broncos probably came to some sort of agreement that they would let him go when the market for free agents heats up again, and McGahee is simply not going to risk another potential injury at OTAs. It could just be business as usual for McGahee, who has skipped voluntary OTAs before, but you never know.
The ideal scenario would be for the Broncos to keep all their backs in-house and get McGahee healthy. Regardless of what it looks like for fantasy football fanatics, the Broncos’ best four running backs right now are Montee Ball, Willis McGahee, Ronnie Hillman, and Knowshon Moreno. If you go by the philosophy of putting the best players on the field, certainly that group would give the Broncos enviable depth at the position, but the way things work in the NFL, teams don’t often operate in that manner.
No matter how the roster ends up, I think the Broncos are counting on Montee Ball in a big way, and they aren’t going to waste any time getting him on the field and making an impact. There are big expectations for the former Wisconsin tailback.