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Klee: As NFL opener nears, Broncos should play it safe at running back

By Paul Klee Updated: August 30, 2013 at 10:29 am

DENVER - If Thursday night was the grand moment when we could tell the order of the Broncos' shuffle of running backs, we are flat out of luck.

The final exhibition of this preseason was neither grand, nor telling.

The game was only 5 minutes old when a trainer cut off the tape from Ronnie Hillman's wrists. The projected starter didn't fumble, then traded his helmet for a white cap.

The top backups, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno, never left the sideline in Arizona's 32-24 win.

Gee, thanks for the insight, John Fox. It's like the Ravens were watching or something.

When Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth and the dirty birds from Baltimore and Joe Flacco (the quarterback, not the banner) and 24 million TV sets converge on Sports Authority Field in six days, which running back should start for the Broncos?

"At any position, you should feel like you can go in there and start. And that's how I feel," Moreno told me. "I feel I can definitely help the team out and play. But at the end of the day all you can do is work and leave the rest up to the coaches."

I think Peyton Manning will be the NFL MVP in 2013.

I think, for the second time in his career, he will throw for more than 40 touchdowns, and the Broncos offense will be good enough to earn a nickname.

Something cool like "Rocky Mountain Fly" or "Win Air" or "Mountain Flew" or "18th Airborne."

So I think it's kinda, sorta important that Manning never takes the kind of hit that turns a nickname-worthy season into an extension of this preseason.

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has laid out two prerequisites for the running backs in Manning's offense.

Don't fumble. Don't let Peyton get thumped.

After this preseason, only one of the candidates - if he's even that - fits those criteria.

Knowshon Rockwell Moreno.

Before considering how one man can have three excellent names, consider this:

In this preseason, and it's only that, the two running backs ahead of Moreno on the depth chart each broke one of the cardinal rules of being a Broncos running back.

Hillman fumbled, twice. Ball missed a block, once, that got Manning creamed.

This is not solely based on preseason results, of course; Moreno is their best option in pass protection and has shown to be steady, if not spectacular.

Let's be real: fretting over whether the running back in a Manning-led offense can break off a long run is like worrying if Megan Fox is a good actress.

That's not why they are there. They are there for these reasons:

"We're not going to put the ball on the ground, or else they're not going to carry it," Gase said. "In pass protection, their job is to make sure No. 18 doesn't get touched. That's what they're going to do."

See, there's nothing in those instructions that suggests breaking tackles or catching passes is critical to their job description. In a Broncos offense that, I think, will challenge the franchise scoring record of 31.3 points per game, the running back's job is simply not to mess it up.

Nothing of interest was added to the running back conundrum in the final preseason game.

The wise guess says five running backs will make the 53-man roster: Hillman, Ball, Moreno, Jacob Hester and either Jeremiah Johnson or Lance Ball, probably Ball.

Johnson ran hard, but he's also run out of practice-squad eligibility. I still like C.J. Anderson, the injured rookie who is probably headed to the practice squad.

Hillman is the favorite to be the starting running back in the NFL opener next Thursday. Why risk injury to the starter in the final preseason game?

Build him up. Remind the 22-year-old he's going to be fine. Fumble-itis is a curable illness.

"You know of any running backs that haven't fumbled?" Moreno asked. "I sure don't."

These decisions are not solely based on performance. The Broncos invested high draft picks in Ball, a second-round pick, and Hillman, a third-round pick.

Their first-round pick from the Josh McDaniels era, not the John Elway era, is looming on the periphery.

"It's a big deal just to be out on the field," Moreno said when asked if earning the starting spot is important to him. "If that's on offense, great. If that's on special teams, I'll do whatever."

I don't think it's a particularly important thing that Hillman and Ball rank ahead of Moreno on the depth chart on Aug. 30.

Both are capable; athletes don't reach the NFL if they're not.

But with so much on the line, namely Manning's health, isn't the safe move also the best move?

-

Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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