Willis McGahee was released yesterday by the Denver Broncos, a move not particularly surprising given his age, salary, and injury that ended his 2012 season. The team drafted Montee Ball of Wisconsin in the 2nd round, Ronnie Hillman was a rookie a year ago, and former first round pick Knowshon Moreno did a respectable job stepping in when McGahee was injured.
McGahee may still have something left to contribute for another team, as he averaged over 70 yards rushing per game in each of his two seasons in Denver, before suffering a torn MCL last year. He will turn 32 after the season begins, an age when many running backs have slowed. Here are some comparable names to McGahee, who had between 700 and 1,300 yards from scrimmage at age 31, and played on a different team the following season.
Three of them went to new teams and were the lead running back: Dickerson, Lamar Smith with Carolina, and Jim Taylor by the expansion New Orleans Saints. Antowain Smith backed up Chris Brown and got action when Brown got hurt. Roger Craig was the backup to a young Terry Allen, while Allen saw playing time behind Ricky Williams. Charlie Garner joined a platoon with Michael Pittman but got hurt after three games. McGahee’s best opportunity is likely to be with a team with a young, unproven runner where he moves into the #2 role initially, or a place like San Diego or Oakland where a starter has had injury issues in the past.
Meanwhile, Montee Ball would appear to be the biggest benefiiciary in Denver. Only two of those above situations actually fit most similarly with Denver. Eric Dickerson replaced Roger Craig for the Raiders, and the Patriots traded for Corey Dillon while the Dolphins did the same for Ricky Williams. Amos Zereoue was a free agent signing with Oakland, joining Tyrone Wheatley.
Only three of the situations involved a team drafting a back the same year they jettisoned a 31-year old veteran. The 1967 Packers took Travis Williams in the 4th round, but they also had a bevy of backs they had stockpiled over the previous drafts to prepare for Taylor’s departure. Jim Grabowski was the first round pick the previous year, and led the team in rushing yards. However, three backs had between 400 and 500 rushing yards (Ben Wilson and Donny Anderson also) and it was a true platoon situation.
The two most recent ones involved a rookie draft pick combining with a young unproven player from previous drafts. In 1992, the Indianapolis Colts selected Rodney Culver of Notre Dame in the 4th round. Anthony Johnson had been drafted two years, but had only 92 career rushing yards. As it turns out, it was Johnson who ended up being the bigger part of the platoon in terms of yards from scrimmage (1109 to 531) while Culver had more touchdowns. Johnson also ended up with the better career, emerging again in Carolina for the team that reached the conference championship game in the franchise’s second year.
The 2000 Patriots, meanwhile, selected J.R. Redmond in the third round, a year after taking Kevin Faulk in the second round. Again, it was the non-rookie who led the way in a platoon situation (1035 to 532 in yards from scrimmage for Faulk).
This doesn’t mean that Ball will lose out to Hillman by any means. It is just a dose of reality that these situations haven’t always resulted in the hot rookie coming in and lighting the world on fire. We’ll have to watch the reports and preseason games in Denver to see how it will shake out. My guess on the most likely situation is a platoon with two to three backs involved and getting carries, and it will likely come down to pass protection of Manning to determine who ends up getting the most opportunities.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]