When the Broncos selected Knowshon Moreno with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, many Denver fans likely were scratching their heads. After all, we're talking about a team that needed lots of help on the defensive side of the ball, and had just signed three free-agent backs in the offseason. Correll Buckhalter, J.J. Arrington and LaMont Jordan were all brought into the fold for new head coach Josh McDaniels to help add a little veteran depth to a team that went through running backs in 2008 like people with colds run through boxes of tissues.
Certainly injuries were largely to blame for Denver's rotation of lead backs last season, with six different players starting at halfback: Michael Pittman, Selvin Young, Tatum Bell, P.J. Pope, Ryan Torain and converted fullback Peyton Hillis, who ended up leading the team in rushing yards with only 343. Even so, the combined efforts of this multiheaded hydra-like beast did finish third in the league in yards per rush, thanks to the perennially solid offense line that had become a trademark of a Mike Shanahan offense over the years.
Shanahan, however, is no longer the boss in Denver. The Josh McDaniels era has begun, and on the surface, the name is the only real change we see here. Take a look at the New England Patriots' offense, led by McDaniels over the past three seasons. With Tom Brady at the helm, McDaniels helped direct a Patriots offense to a level of efficiency never before seen in NFL history, and even a perfect 16-0 regular season. Then, after his star quarterback went down unexpectedly to injury last year, he still managed to tutor untested Matt Cassel on the fly; New England still ended the season with the league's fifth-best offense. However, what is more relevant to McDaniels' new leadership role was the revolving cadre of backs he used with the Patriots to help counter Cassel's inexperience. With Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, LaMont Jordan and even Heath Evans all contributing, with only Morris (156) getting more than 100 carries, McDaniels' schemes helped produce the sixth-best rush offense in the league.
Despite all the offensive success as a unit, neither the Patriots nor the Broncos had a single running back in the top 25 of fantasy scorers in ESPN Standard Leagues last season. So why would we expect anything different in 2009, even with the addition of Moreno to the mix in Denver? Jay Cutler is no longer at the helm, so either Kyle Orton or Chris Simms will be called upon to lead the passing attack for McDaniels. That's a significant step down and has to hurt the fantasy value of both Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, but as for the running backs, it's going to put even more pressure on them to produce at a top-10 level as a group. Although that task will certainly be made easier by the return of an offensive line that includes "the Two Ryans" (Clady and Harris), it's still a huge leap from last season's output.
Which brings us back to the free-agent signings. LaMont Jordan, coming directly from New England and already familiar with McDaniels' playbook, will likely repeat last season's role as a short-yardage specialist, including goal-line carries. Cardinals castoff J.J. Arrington likely will be used on third downs in passing situations as an extra receiving option out of the backfield. Before the draft, it was expected that former Brian Westbrook backup Correll Buckhalter would end up as the primary option in the backfield, with Selvin Young and Ryan Torain possibly still in the running for the job in training camp. However, all that changed after the team selected Knowshon Moreno. When you already have many cooks in the kitchen, you don't go and hire a promising new chef and ask him to wash the dishes.
Just by virtue of the fact he was drafted as early as he was, Moreno should be expected to get the most carries on this Denver team. However, while that might be in the neighborhood of 200 touches, Moreno isn't going to get much more than that in this system. Even an established back such as Corey Dillon had only 199 carries in 2006 when McDaniels took over as the Patriots' offensive coordinator, and he played in every game. But even with limits placed on Moreno's workload, that doesn't mean Moreno won't be a bad fantasy option either. After all, he needed only two seasons to become the fourth-leading rusher in the University of Georgia's history and is only the second Bulldogs back to rush for 1,000-plus yards in consecutive years. The other one was Herschel Walker. That's pretty good company to be in.
Finally, let's go back to that offensive line, shall we? Although the blocking scheme might begin to morph from the zone-style method utilized by Mike Shanahan to a pulling-guard, gap scheme that McDaniels prefers, the coach told the Denver Post he's not going to completely reinvent the wheel in one fell swoop. The changeover to his style is definitely coming, but it will be a more gradual shift. "That was really their bread-and-butter," McDaniels said. "We did more gap schemes in New England, where we're going to pull a guard. I can't give that up. That's kind of my baby. But you're going to see both."
So when it comes to the decision on where to slot Denver's running backs on your initial draft lists, Moreno should definitely be the highest Bronco on the board. And although it's premature to pencil him into fantasy football starting lineups just yet, I can think of one other occasion when the Broncos drafted a running back from Georgia and decided to hand him the ball on a regular basis. And the Terrell Davis era went pretty well, didn't it?
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.