Knowshon Moreno’s days may be coming to an end in Denver

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With four weeks of the NFL season in the books, we’re now halfway to the leagues’ mid-season trading deadline.  As the trade deadline approaches, the Denver Broncos have a decision to make regarding fourth-year running back Knowshon Moreno.

Once recovered from an ACL injury, Moreno entered the season as the team’s No. 2 RB, behind starter Willis McGahee.  After rushing eight times for just 15 yards (1.9 YPC) through the first two games of the season however, the Broncos deactivated him in Week 3 and activated rookie Ronnie Hillman in Moreno’s place.

The move may have been the beginning of the end for Moreno, a former first round draft pick who has underachieved since arriving in Denver in 2009.  After a decent rookie season in which he started nine games and rushed for 947 yards and seven scores, Moreno has since battled multiple injuries, production ineffectiveness and backfield competition — which ultimately led to John Fox and the Broncos taking a healthy Moreno out of uniform on game day and insertting an unproven rookie in his place.

Regrettably for Moreno, Hillman has been productive in Knowshon’s absence.  Through the first two weeks of the season, Moreno touched the ball nine times and gained 27 yards (3.0 YPT) and scored on a 12-yard reception, while also losing a fumble.  Over the past two weeks, Hillman has received 15 touches and has gained 71 yards (4.7 YPT) while protecting the ball and showing shines of promising speed and awareness.

Meanwhile, fellow fourth-year running back Lance Ball has kept Moreno off of the team’s game day active roster as the team’s unofficial third running back.  Ball has received 19 touches and gained 77 yards (4.05 YPT) while scoring a touchdown and protecting the football.  Ball is a former practice squad player who entered the league as an undrafted free agent; Moreno was the 12th overall selection of the 2009 NFL Draft.

Obviously, the Broncos are not respecters of status, which is perhaps the reason why at least one undrafted player has made the Broncos’ active roster for nine consecutive years, which is the third-longest of such streaks.  From linebacker Wesley Woodyard to cornerback Chris Harris to linebacker Steven Johnson this summer, the Broncos have found talented players among undrafted players each April dating back to 2004.

Ball entered the league with the St. Louis Rams but the Broncos’ philosophy remains the same; if you can play, you will, no matter how you were acquired.  Conversely, when players do not perform well, their playing time decreases, regardless of how high said player was drafted.

In Moreno’s case, the Broncos are faced with a running back who was a high-profile player coming out of college but has seen his production slip every year he has been in the league, due to many factors.  Sticking to their philosophy, the Broncos reduced Moreno’s playing time and ultimately removed him from the game day active roster.

With the trade deadline approaching, will the team go a step further?  Without Moreno, the team has carried four active running backs on game days (including “running back” Chris Gronkowski, who is the team’s starting fullback), and their running game has fared well through the first four weeks of the season.

With McGahee leading the charge and Hillman and Ball contributing effectively, Moreno is now expendable for the Broncos.  Is he tradable?  Yes, for a mid-to-low draft selection.  But if the team does try to trade Moreno before the trade deadline, they may trouble finding a trading partner.  Ultimately, cutting Moreno may be a more realistic method of parting ways with him, if the Broncos do in fact plan on ending Moreno’s stint in Denver before his contract officially ends following the 2013 season.

While Moreno is expendable, the team may opt to hold onto him throughout the season to provide depth in case an injury occurs in Denver’s backfield later in the year.  It does however appear highly unlikely that Moreno will still be around by 2013.  If Moreno continues to be a game day inactive as the season progresses, his time in Denver is all but expired.

Jon Heath is a contributor to Bronco Planet and can be found on Twitter at @Jon_BT.