In 2009 I talked up Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno a lot. He graded highly as a runner, receiver and blocker for the Bulldogs – registering 2736 rushing yards in two years of starting, 645 receiving yards and 32 total touchdowns. Moreno had a knack of making big plays, falling forwards under contact and playing with an edge you want to see from a big name running back.
Friend of the blog and talented scout Kyle Rota graded Moreno very highly, complemented his vision and inside running ability and projected a positive NFL future:
“I’ve made no secret that Moreno is one of my favorite players in this draft, or frankly any draft, and there is a good reason. Too often we make a big deal about size/speed, especially at the HB position, but there are tons of HOF/Pro-bowl backs who don’t have exceptional size/speed combinations but make up for it in other ways. IMO, Moreno is one of those backs. He has the best balance I’ve seen, the best pass blocking I’ve seen, and the greatest intensity I’ve seen in the few years I’ve been scouting. He’s a good all-around back capable of running any play, and as a receiver he is excellent at generating 1stdowns. Two players I am reminded of are Shaun Alexander (due to vision and inside running, but Moreno is a killer blocker and receiver where Alexander was poor at both) and Clinton Portis (the 2005+ version who is a great blocker and inside runner, not the 200lber from college), and I feel Moreno could be better than either because he truly is the best thing about each of those two backs.”
Rota touched on one of the things that generally caused some concern – a lack of explosive breakaway speed. Moreno recorded a 4.53 forty yard dash, a distinctly average time just a year after both Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson ran in the 4.20’s. It created a divide amongst scouts, some of which were prepared to look past the speed issue and maintain a top-15 grade and those who saw a drop into the 20’s.
Either way, Moreno was more than capable of making explosive, athletic plays:
The Seahawks were picking fourth overall in 2009 with a clear need at running back having just cut Shaun Alexander. GM at the time Tim Ruskell scouted Moreno aggressively, as reviewed in this article I wrote before the 2009 draft. I still wonder to this day if Moreno was a realistic alternative to Aaron Curry had the Wake Forest linebacker been drafted – as some expected – by Kansas City with the third overall pick (they instead chose defensive end Tyson Jackson). Sure, it was early for a running back without elite speed. It was also very early for a linebacker who hadn’t shown a great deal of pass-rushing qualities in college (Curry had nine sacks in four years for Wake Forest).
In the end the Denver Broncos selected Moreno with the 12th overall pick, something I correctly projected in my 2009 mock draft (one of the very few things I did accurately guess, as it turned out). NFL Draft Scout reflects back on the decision:
“Denver was smitten with Moreno’s versatility. He obviously is a good runner, but the Broncos also like the fact that he can catch the ball out of the backfield and pick up the blitz.”
Two years on and any positive talk about Moreno appears to be behind us. Columnist Woody Paige launched a scathing review of Moreno’s NFL career-to-date in his mailbox segment this week, suggesting the Broncos quickly decided they’d made a huge mistake drafting the Georgia runner.
“After the draft, McDaniels and the staff believed privately they made a big mistake on Moreno. He was not what they thought. He hasn’t been tough, smart, motivated, if that’s what you’re asking. He has been a bust. I’ve said it before. He’s not a great clubhouse guy. Interpret that how you want, and he’s been a wimp on the field. John Fox is bringing back the zone blocking, and Moreno is not a one-cut back who will go against the grain, or, at least, he hasn’t been, and he doesn’t get into the secondary fast. They need another running back bad, and Fox, in our three-hour conversation last week, said running back is the priority, along with defensive tackles, in free agency. Moreno better get his butt in gear this year, or he’ll be just another average running back.”
What followed was a pile-on effect. Greg Cosell tweeted, “Interesting reports from Denver re: Moreno. Not surprised. Overdrafted. Does not have skill set to be feature back. D. Williams in Denver?”
Dave Razzano also joined in, “Was 3rd round talent coming out. This guy lacked obvious speed/burst in space. The Hype machine got him drafted in 1. happns alot (SIC).”
I must confess I don’t recall ever reading a report that graded Moreno as poorly as this during the pre-draft breakdown. Some voiced concerns about his speed, but only enough to drop him into the late first round. Admittedly, Twitter was not around to necessarily broadcast the strong views of Cosell and Razzano as publicly as we get today. Even so, it’s interesting that nobody has jumped to the players’ defense this week either within the Broncos organisation or among scouts/journalists.
I don’t think it’s unfair to compare both Aaron Curry and Knowshon Moreno – potentially linked as they were to Seattle as noted earlier. Both decisions by the Seahawks and Broncos would’ve been based around impact – if you draft a linebacker in the top five, you expect a short learning curve and it’s the same with running backs. Production, impact and early starts are all part of the deal.
If a young quarterback starts early and struggles, it’s put down to the difficult nature of the position. Receivers generally also get a little bit more time to grow. With linebackers and running backs, you’re almost expecting the finished article by even year two.
Both Curry and Moreno have been unspectacular. During two-years in Seattle, Curry has 5.5 sacks with four forced fumbles and no interceptions. The man he replaced (Julian Peterson, who was traded to Detroit and approaching the age of 33) also recorded 5.5 sacks in the last two years with six forced fumbles and no interceptions. Curry has shown some quality against the run and certainly made improvements in year two, but he remains a non-factor as a pass rusher. He’ll be the teams top earner in 2011 with a salary over $10m as part of his 6-year, $60m contract. $34m of that deal is guaranteed.
Moreno led the Broncos for rushing in both his two years in Denver, recording 947 yards and seven rushing touchdowns in 2009 (along with 213 receiving yards and a further two scores). Last season he had 779 rushing yards and just five touchdowns for the struggling 4-12 Broncos, with 372 receiving yards and three more scores.
It’s not a disastrous stat line, but it’s also not one that matches his extreme production in college or what is expected from a first round running back these days. When the NFL’s top runner (Arian Foster) is an UDFA and when Tampa Bay can find brilliant production from LaGarrette Blount, you’re hoping for spectacular and not average when you spend a round one pick on a runner. Patience isn’t a word used often when discussing highly drafted runners.
Moreno averages exactly four yards per-carry, but it’s also worth noting how much Denver has struggled the past two years despite a fast start under the now departed McDaniels. In 2010, the Broncos running game was ranked 26th overall and averaged just seven more yards per-game than the Seahawks’ 31st ranked rushing attack. Can Moreno point to team struggles and several niggling injuries as justification for a lack of explosion to start his career?
Moreno will celebrate his 24th birthday on Saturday, so clearly there’s still time to resurrect a career that has not captured the imagination. Like the 25-year-old Curry, he still has the time and the opportunity to live up to the lofty expectations witnessed in 2009. Having lost the coach who invested so much stock in him to begin with, it may be that Moreno’s future lies elsewhere. As Cosell touts in his tweet above, John Fox could look to bring in free agent DeAngelo Williams – a player he enjoyed some level of success with in Carolina. Other players such as Cedric Benson and Marion Barber could interest Fox. Will Moreno become expendable during a major rebuild in Denver?
If so, it may be one for the Seahawks to monitor. Despite already owning three well known backs in Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington, I’m not ready to admit defeat in a positive review of Moreno’s abilities coming out of college. Clearly there are bigger needs within the team, but sometimes it’s about seizing an opportunity. I’m not going to write off Moreno as a bust, just as I wouldn’t write off Curry as a bust.
Perhaps neither should’ve been drafted as highly as they were? Perhaps it’s simply unrealistic to expect every linebacker or running back to hit the ground running? It certainly doesn’t help Curry’s cause that players drafted in his class such as Brian Cushing and Clay Mathews have enjoyed such productive starts in the NFL. Likewise it won’t help Moreno that more and more backs are being discovered later in the draft to provide an instant impact. Yet there’s no reason why both players cannot go on to become productive pro’s.
Running back may not be a critical need, but improving the running game is. Smart trades, calculated gambles and good drafting will continue Seattle’s rebuild. Despite the needs elsewhere, I’d still keep a close eye on Moreno’s situation in Denver.