(Eds: Links photos. With AP Photos.)By EDDIE PELLSAP National Writer
There’s the man who isn’t big enough, the former first-round draft pick who hasn’t lived up to his potential and the record-setting college back brought in to replace them both.
Then, there is this question: With Peyton Manning at quarterback, does it really matter who winds up as the featured runner for the Denver Broncos?
That’s the puzzle Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are sorting out during training camp.
When the first depth chart of camp was released over the weekend, it was Hillman, who put on 20 pounds in the offseason, listed at No. 1. He was followed by Ball, the second-round draft pick out of Wisconsin, and Moreno, the 12th overall pick of the 2009 draft.
”You want to be that guy that’s able to play every down,” said Hillman, a third-round pick last year who was largely viewed as a change-of-pace back. ”That’s what I work toward. It’s been my emphasis and hopefully that happens.”
The whole notion that the Broncos need a featured back might seem laughable in an offense featuring a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback who is showing every sign of being completely healthy.
Back in January against Baltimore, it was no joke.
The Broncos had a seven-point lead with 3:12 left and were in position to run out the clock with two first downs. Hillman got the first one with runs of 8 and 5 yards, but then gained a total of three yards on his next three carries.
Moreno had left the game with a knee injury and Denver’s biggest back at the time, Willis McGahee, was already long gone with a season-ending knee injury. That left it to Hillman, who, at 180 pounds, didn’t have the girth to push the pile. Coach John Fox opted against trying to throw for the first down and so, the Broncos gave the ball back, gave up the tying touchdown and, soon after, were 38-35 upset losers to the Ravens.
A few days later, Fox conceded that, yes, he wished he’d had that big back to milk the clock.
Hillman got the message and packed on 20 pounds in the offseason.
”It wasn’t the taking of the hits that was the problem,” he said. ”You can always take hits at any size, but I’m just more comfortable.”
Not leaving anything to chance despite Hillman’s weight gain, the Broncos targeted a running back in the offseason and used their second-round pick to take Ball, whose credentials have ”every-down back” written all over them. He posted NCAA records with 5,140 yards and 83 touchdowns in four years at Wisconsin.
Ball has gotten work with the first team during training camp, but is officially listed second on a depth chart Fox described as nothing more than something the Broncos put out ”because the league makes us.”
”I’ve most definitely seen that, but I think that’s right because Ronnie’s done a great job,” Ball said. ”He’s been doing a great job this camp and he most definitely deserves it right now, but like I said, I’m most definitely going to try to take it.”
By all appearances, Moreno has the biggest hill to climb. It didn’t go unnoticed in the offseason when executive vice president John Elway consistently forgot to mention the former first-round draft pick’s name while discussing the Broncos runners.
But Moreno is here, albeit listed third on the depth chart and practicing with the third team.
Last year, he started the season overcoming issues from a 2011 knee injury and was inactive for eight of the first 10 games. When McGahee went down, however, Moreno got the starting job. He was efficient, not spectacular, rushing for 510 yards over the final six games until going down in the playoffs.
He worked hard in the offseason even though a lot seemed stacked against him.
”I was in there with the strength staff and with the training staff every day working on it,” Moreno said. ”It didn’t take that long. It was a grind.”
Others competing for spots in Denver’s backfield include rookie C.J. Anderson, Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson.
But heading into Thursday’s preseason opener at San Francisco, it’s Hillman holding the top spot with Bell pushing him and Moreno trying to stay in the mix.
”No guy in our position doesn’t want to start,” Hillman said. ”You can see it as inspiration, motivation, but for me, it’s just to hold them off because those guys are good.”
Notes: After OT Orlando Franklin left practice with a hip injury, the Broncos first-team line looked like this, from right to left: Louis Vasquez, Ryan Lilja, Manny Ramirez, Zane Beadles, Chris Clark. Of those five, only Beadles is in the spot the team envisioned for him for the start of the season. Fox’s reaction to all the shuffling: ”I’m pretty pleased where we are.” … TE Joel Dreessen missed practice to have his left knee scoped. Dreessen first hurt the knee while practicing on the Broncos’ artificial turf during the spring. He is expected to miss the rest of training camp. … WR Andre Caldwell, fighting for a spot on the team, had two long catches from QB Peyton Manning. … At the end of practice, the Broncos first-team defense completely stymied the offense during a 2-minute drill. Manning threw four straight incompletions, capped by a drop by WR Demaryius Thomas.