Let's first clear up any confusion—Denver Broncos' newly acquired quarterback Peyton Manning is not a coach. He won't make the call to start running back Willis McGahee over rookie Ronnie Hillman, or vice-versa. But there is no question that Manning will conduct an aerial assault in Denver just as he did with the Indianapolis Colts. And that fact will directly affect who lines up in the backfield on any given play.
The Broncos are deep at the running back position. And other than three-time Pro Bowler McGahee, the group is largely unproven. After McGahee, Denver is taking a hard look at guys like Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Mario Fannin, Xavier Omon and rookie Ronnie Hillman.
There's nothing too special about that group as it stands now. But then again, there wasn't anything special about the group of running backs Manning had in Indianapolis either. The running backs in a Manning-led system need to possess two key attributes: 1) the ability to pass block and 2) be able to catch out of the backfield.
And with that, McGahee can expect to see more of the sideline than he did last season in Denver's power-run system.
The Broncos have made it clear that they will be led by Manning, which means you can expect to see Manning calling countless audibles and No. 18 zipping the pigskin around in the air.
So unless it's 2nd-and-1, McGahee's role will be significantly diminished. McGahee simply does not catch the ball—it's not his forte. McGahee has notched 15 or fewer catches in each of the previous three seasons. He catches more colds than passes.
The other running backs at Dove Valley this offseason have a better chance of seeing the field than McGahee. And one running back has began to separate himself from the others.
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman has already secured the number two spot behind McGahee just based on his performance during OTA's, according to the Denver Post. And with McGahee not typically playing on passing downs, Hillman is set to see a significant portion of snaps during his inaugural season.
The other running backs on Denver's roster all have issues that carry great weight.
Knowshon Moreno has invited injury to his body each season, including the most recent ACL tear/surgery. The Broncos are more likely than not looking for Moreno to get healthy and then will look to shop him prior to the regular season.
Sophomore running back Mario Fannin is a guy to keep an eye on this offseason and preseason. Fannin is a rare combination of size (5'10 3/8", 231 lbs.) and speed (4.37 40-yard dash). The undrafted running back suffered a torn ACL last summer and was shipped off to injured reserve for the 2011 season. Fannin is back with the Broncos in Dove Valley and is picking up where he left off last offseason prior to his injury.
Fannin is intriguing not only because of his open-field speed and elusiveness, but because of his ability to catch out of the backfield. Fannin developed into a solid pass-catching back during his time with the Auburn Tigers. In fact, he broke the Tigers' all-time records for receptions and receiving yards by a running back.
And with Manning at the helm, a typical third-down back like Fannin becomes almost an every-down back. Fannin's knee injury is the huge red flag you can see from any high place in the country, however.
But let's not forget about Hillman. The Denver Post sees Hillman as the running back who will see action beginning Week 1. The Broncos spent a third-round pick on Hillman and they intend to get milage out of him immediately. In fact, Denver traded up (with Cleveland) to acquire Hillman with the No. 67 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft.
Lance Ball is strictly a role player that may see some action on third downs, but with better talent in front of him on the roster it's doubtful.
Xavier Omon is a journeyman running back who has bounced around from the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos. Omon has shown flashes of greatness and should land on a team. And if given the right opportunity, Omon could make significant contributions for the ground game. Denver just might not be that team.
So the battle for the third-down—and perhaps every-down—running back spot may just come down to a previously undrafted project (Fannin) and the second-round rookie out of San Diego State (Hillman). The smart money is on Hillman.
At San Diego State, Hillman proved his value by trucking for back-to-back 1,500 yard seasons. He can catch out of the backfield and has legit pass-blocking skills. And unlike Fannin, he's not hobbled by a significant and recent knee injury. Look for Hillman to pick up blitzes for Manning this season.