When Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee went down with a knee injury back in Week 11 of this past 2012 NFL regular season against the San Diego Chargers, which eventually turned into a torn MCL and broken leg, most fantasy pundits looked to McGahee’s back-up on the depth chart, rookie third round pick Ronnie Hillman from San Diego State, to be the next man up.
The reason why that was, and I was one of the many fantasy owners who rushed out to pick up Hillman once the news broke that McGahee went down with his injury, was because of our need to find the next big thing in fantasy football. During the pre-season there was some buzz about Hillman and the word on him was that he could be something special if given the chance to be the lead ball carrier in Denver.
Things were looking good for Hillman to become the team’s replacement starter, as he moved up the depth chart throughout the course of the season where he eventually found himself as the main back-up to McGahee. Surely, with McGahee sidelined it was Hillman’s chance to shine. Hold on a moment though…
News began to break out all over the Twittersphere the morning before the Broncos’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs that Knowshon Moreno, the team’s former first round draft pick from the University of Georgia, who the Broncos selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, was going to be given a chance to be the team’s new starter, not Hillman.
But why would a player that had up to that point in his career put up only pedestrian numbers (1,905 rushing yards in 36 games played during his three year career) and who had actually been inactive since Week 3 of the NFL regular season be given the shot to be the team’s new leading ball carrier over Hillman? The culprit was Hillman himself, who the Broncos weren’t secure enough with to tote the rock regularly because of pass protection concerns. We found out during the season that Peyton Manning was the Peyton Manning of old and that the Broncos would become a heavy passing team. McGahee has proven to be an adept pass blocker during his career and with him out of the picture the Broncos couldn’t risk putting a rookie that couldn’t pass protect well enough next to Manning.
The Broncos decided that Moreno was the superior pass blocker and named him the starter with the hopes that he’d be able to produce after being given a second chance; with Hillman always being there as a fallback option in case Moreno wasn’t able to produce. Well, we all saw what happened after Moreno was yanked off the Broncos’ inactives list…
In his first start against the Chiefs in Week 12 Moreno became not only a real life quality running back but he also was a player worth owning and starting in fantasy football, after totaling 111 yards on 24 touches against the Chiefs. Kind of surreal to think about it now after all the hype that was placed on Moreno early in his NFL career that never materialized.
Just take a look at the numbers Moreno put up in his six regular season starts after being named the team’s starting running back in Week 12:
- 131 carries for 513 rushing yards
- 3 rushing touchdowns
- 22 catches for 155 receiving yards
- 0 fumbles lost
When you average out those numbers on a per game basis they would have looked like this:
- Rushes per game: 21.83
- Rushing yards per game: 85.5
- Rushing yards per attempt: 3.92
- Rushing touchdowns per game: 0.5
- Receptions per game: 3.6
- Receiving yards per game: 25.83
- Total rushing and receiving yards per game: 111.33
Based on average fantasy points scoring settings in a non-PPR league where 1 point is awarded for 10 yards rushing, 1 point is awarded for 10 yards receiving and 6 points are awarded for touchdowns Moreno’s per game fantasy points average during his starting stint would have been 14.1 points; in a PPR league that total would have been 17.7 points.
I know a six game sample size in fantasy football isn’t large enough to predict future success and for all we know Moreno was just a flash in the pan during his six starts (3.92 YPA isn’t all that tantalizing) or that anybody could produce behind the Denver Bronco’s O-Line, which was ranked as the 4th best offensive line in Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) 2012 offensive line rankings. But, let’s give Moreno the benefit of the doubt this one time and play around with numbers to see what his six game starter’s stint would have translated to if we extrapolated the numbers to a 16-game schedule…
Moreno 16-game season extrapolated stats would have looked like this:
- Rushing attempts: 349.28
- Rushing yards: 1,368
- Rushing yards per attempt: 3.92
- Rushing touchdowns: 8
- Receptions: 21.6
- Receiving yards: 413.28
- Total rushing and receiving yards: 1,781.28
Other than the rushing yards per attempt and receptions those would have all been career bests for Moreno. In a standard non-PPR fantasy football league the above numbers for Moreno would have amounted to 226.13 fantasy points. Where would that have ranked Moreno on the season? Well, based on the data above Moreno would have been the 6th highest fantasy scoring running back for the 2012 NFL fantasy season; besting the likes of Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Stevan Ridley and Chris Johnson, just to name a few. Or to put that into perspective only Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris would have scored more fantasy points at the running back position than a full 16-game season from Moreno in 2012!
When you look at the numbers mentioned above that I’ve typed up for you to the left they seem even more ridiculous when you harken back to the first two games of the NFL regular season, where Moreno totaled 27 yards on 9 touches and scored one touchdown. Who would have thought back then, before Moreno was placed on what seemed to be a season-long inactive stint, would turn his season, heck, his career, around to the point he’d be considered a trustworthy starter in fantasy on a weekly basis? Ludacris, if you ask me! But fantasy football is the land of opportunity and any flash in the pan, IE Bryce Brown, can come in and make a large fantasy impact.
What can we expect out of the 25-year-old-going-on-26 Moreno in 2013? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? McGahee wasn’t placed on season ending Injury Reserve, and was on track to come back for the AFC Championship game, which many assumed the Broncos would reach. Alas, the Broncos were upset by the eventual Super Bowl bound Baltimore Ravens, and the Broncos weren’t forced to show their hand if indeed McGahee would have been able to make his anticipated comeback.
One of the most renowned names in fantasy football, Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, recently released his top 150 post-season fantasy football rankings and he ranked Moreno 124 on that list. This is what Silva had to say about Moreno in his ranking of him:
“124. Knowshon Moreno — Moreno was a late-season fantasy star following Willis McGahee’s MCL tear, but there’s little doubt about which Broncos back is a superior runner. Assuming McGahee doesn’t suddenly fall off the cliff in his age-32 season, Moreno will enter 2013 as a handcuff only. The Broncos will also expect more from rising second-year man Ronnie Hillman.”
Two things of note in Silva’s analysis: 1.) McGahee is the Broncos’ clear-cut starter, assuming he’s healthy; 2.) Hillman is still around and viewed by the team as their running back of the future.
When you add that information to the 17th ranked run blocking offensive line, based on PFF’s offensive line rankings, which could have played a part in Moreno’s performance, it looks like Moreno won’t be all that fantasy relevant going into next season. However anything can and does happen in the world of fantasy football and when we look back at his 2012 starter’s stats we see that there is reason to believe that if Moreno were to become the Broncos’ starting running back in 2013 he would produce at a high level.
The offensive line that was so well beloved by PFF won’t change all that much in 2013. Starting Left Tackle Ryan Clady and Center Dan Koppen are the only free agents of note from the offensive line and all indications are that Clady will either be re-signed or franchise-tagged. Koppen wasn’t even the starting center going into the season, as that job actually belonged to J.D. Walton, who, while being viewed as one of the worst offensive centers in football during the 2011 season was actually turning things around before his Week 2 season ending fractured ankle injury occurred, if the below tweet from PFF is to be believed that is:
With the offensive side of the ball looking like it’ll remain the same for the Broncos in 2013 would it totally be out of the realm of possibility that Moreno would be able to repeat his 2012 starting numbers if the opportunity to do so presented itself? Of course we might not ever get a chance to find out as long as McGahee and Hillman are ahead of him on the depth chart but it’s good to keep this information in the back of your pocket if Moreno were to once again become fantasy relevant next season.
At least now we know he has the ability to produce, which is a lot more information than what we had last season once word started trickling out that Moreno was to be the Broncos’ starting running back, not Hillman. We scoffed at the thought last year and figured Moreno would crap out and Hillman would bust out in a big way and reward us obsessive fantasy players for doing our research on Hillman… We were wrong once before and could be wrong again…