Broncos backfield wide open behind Montee Ball

Peyton Manning has thrown 100 touchdown passes in his two seasons in Denver. Although the five-time MVP has another group of tantalizing targets with the additions of Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer, the Broncos want more balance in 2014.

With 1,000-yard rusher Knowshon Moreno going to Miami, second-year pro Montee Ball takes over as the Broncos’ starting running back.

After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman could move up the pecking order or they might be unseated by one or more of the college free agents who signed with Denver after the Broncos chose not to draft a running back.

“Right now it’s an open competition for that spot, for all those spots,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “So, we need to see who is going to be the guy to step up.”

Although general manager John Elway might still sign a veteran back this summer, he added an intriguing list of undrafted free agents this month:

—Kapri Bibbs, who ran for a school-record 1,741 yards and an NCAA-leading 31 TDs in his lone season at Colorado State.

—Brennan Clay of Oklahoma.

—Juwan Thompson of Duke.

—And Jerodis Williams, who went to training camp with the Minnesota Vikings last summer.

Hillman, a third-year pro, might be on the thinnest ice of any incumbent Broncos player. He has frequently found himself in the coaches’ doghouse. He began last year as the starter but had two fumbles that were returned for TDs in the preseason and slipped so far down the depth chart that by midseason he was mostly a game-day inactive.

He has a clean slate from Gase and running backs coach Eric Studesville.

“We’ve talked to him, Eric and myself, as far as, ‘Hey, this is a new start to the year. Whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to build off it. We’ve just got to start over,'” Gase said.

Another slip-up and there’s plenty of running backs ready to take his spot, including Clay (5-11, 201) whose vision, burst, balance and footwork made for an impressive showing at the Broncos’ rookie minicamp last weekend.

Clay could end up being the speedster Hillman was supposed to be for the Broncos before injuries and maturity issues held him back the last two seasons.

As Ball can attest, the biggest thing for a rookie running back to do in Denver is to pick up the blitz first, then the first down, and pass protection is where Thompson, a powerful all-purpose back who packs 225 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame, could have the edge.

Thompson also has a head start because he’s from Duke, where Manning has gathered with his receivers each of the last two springs for a jumpstart on his offseason work under the watchful eye of Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe, who was Manning’s offensive coordinator in college and remains one of his closest confidants.

“I was able to see those guys, see their practice habits, see how it correlated back to Denver,” Thompson said.

Thompson has fresh legs, too, as he wasn’t nearly the workhorse in college that Bibbs, Williams and Clay were. He was one of six Duke running backs with at least 60 carries last season, running 64 times for 348 yards and one TD.

“But at the end of the day we had one goal and that was just winning,” Thompson said. “I had to put that selfishness in the backseat so we could have that record we had.”

Duke won a school-record 10 games and its first ACC Coastal Division title, climbed into the AP Top 25 and made consecutive bowl trips for the first time in program history, losing to Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Cutcliffe’s share-the-load philosophy is similar to the Broncos’ approach, and just who will be getting the carries after Ball, who ran 120 times for 559 yards as a rookie behind Moreno, will be sorted out over the next three months.

“At the running back spot, it’s hard to just have one guy and say, ‘Hey, we’re going with him for 350 carries,'” Gase said. “It’s really not what we’re looking for.”