The Denver Broncos thinned out their crowded backfield on Thursday, releasing veteran Willis McGahee, possibly paving the way for rookie Montee Ball to take over as the No. 1 RB option. ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported McGahee's release.
McGahee's contract ($2.5 million in 2013 and $2 million for '14), his decision to skip voluntary OTAs and the fact that he's coming off a broken leg all combined to put the 31-year-old's roster spot in jeopardy. He had even less wiggle room after the Broncos spent a second-round pick on Wisconsin's Montee Ball, a player they have talked up incessantly since drafting him. Denver then squeezed McGahee out in early work at its mandatory minicamp, with Ball and Ronnie Hillman reportdly receiving much of the reps.
Still, McGahee's release comes as somewhat of a surprise -- especially to McGahee, who said on Tuesday that he planned to be the Broncos' starting back come Week 1, according to USA Today's Lindsay Jones.
Ball now figures to have the inside track on those duties, with Hillman, Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball and Jacob Hester all still occupying the roster as well. McGahee led the Broncos in rushing last season with 731 yards, despite playing only 10 games, but Moreno, Hillman and Lance Ball combined for 1,010 yards.
Montee Ball could soar past that number, if he's given the reins as a starter. He rushed for a combined 3,753 yards and a staggering 55 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Wisconsin; he also caught 59 passes during his college career. The concern with Ball is over his workload -- he averaged 348.5 touches over his junior and senior seasons.
That fact aside, he appears to be a near perfect fit for Denver's offense alongside Peyton Manning.
McGahee, meanwhile, should quickly find work elsewhere, assuming he can prove that he's fully healed from the injuries he suffered last season (though there were rumors he might have played in the AFC title game last January, had Denver not lost to Baltimore). He piled up 1,199 yards for the Broncos on the ground in 2011 and has more than 200 career catches.
A quick list of teams that might be in the market for a proven veteran back includes Cleveland (depending on Trent Richardson's health), Jacksonville, Kansas City (as a backup for Jamaal Charles) and Pittsburgh. Of course, there are other options out there, like Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and Brandon Jacobs. But as Denver's decision proved, youth is often a key component on the backfield depth chart. Which means that Montee Ball will hit the ground running in his rookie season.