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Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object: Knowshon Moreno and the Rookie Wall

Perhaps my greatest claim to fame on this site came before the 2009 NFL Draft, when I championed the candidacy of Georgia Bulldogs running back Knowshon Moreno as a potential first round pick for our Denver Broncos. Not only did I project that possibility in my mock drafts, I advocated for the selection everywhere I could. As a Florida Gators fan, I had seen just about enough of Mr. Moreno to know that it'd be better to have him in the NFL's version of the Orange and Blue than it would be to have him come up against it at yet another level. The newly minted leadership tandem of head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders made a prophet out of me, but only because they thought even more highly of Knowshon than I had.

As a redshirt freshman at the University of Georgia, Moreno was slated to split the carries at running back with the incumbent starter: senior Thomas Brown. Before the third game of the season, however, it was announced that Brown had broken his collarbone and the rest is history. Almost exactly evenly split over two years' worth of playing time, Knowshon racked up 998 498 carries for 2,736 yards and 30 touchdowns, while tacking on 53 catches for 645 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also provided the sizzle to go along with that steak, displaying a flair for the dramatic and a sense of the exceptional. His outstanding production and well-rounded performance was the result of an impressive scouting report worth repeating:

Lacks prototypical size, but plays much bigger... reads defenses well... exceptional vision... can burst through the hole... does not have great top-end speed... tough runner... very elusive... full arsenal to elude tacklers includes stiff arm, spin move, juke and hurdle... extremely competitive and tough... natural receiver who can split out wide... solid pass blocker... can - and wants to - carry his team.

With all that going for him and an obvious effort to revamp the depth chart at that position in Denver, it's really no wonder that the Broncos would select Moreno in the draft. Even though I was never confident enough in my own beliefs to project Knowshon to us at the 12th overall pick, I thought then - and still do now - that he may well end up being a steal for us there. Despite posting a solid rookie line of 247 carries, 947 yards and 7 TD on the ground, plus 28 catches for 213 yards and 2 TD in the air, some will say that he left us wanting for more last season... and I agree! That speaks highly of his true potential, however, and not so much poorly of his 2009 campaign.

A closer look at Moreno's game by game exploits reveals only three disappointing outings out of his initial twelve games: the hard-fought season opener in Cincinnati, the week six showdown on Monday Night Football at San Diego and the week nine stumble against Pittsburgh at home. In hindsight, the Bengals turned out to be surprising contenders with a staunch defense, Eddie Royal left no room for other standouts when he exploded onto the sceen as an elite kick returner during that MNF game against the Chargers and the Steelers always play the run tough. It wasn't until week fourteen that we saw a consistent drop-off in Knowshon's ground game.

It is a widely held belief that rookies hit a wall in the final quarter of the NFL season. That makes sense, seeing as the baseline professional schedule (not counting the preseason, because - well, honestly - that's barely football) is at least two games longer than the longest college slates.  Moreover, the pros have to accomplish that feat with the benefit of only one bye week, while most of the amateur squads get two during their 12-game regular seasons and additional time surrounding any postseason activity. That does not even begin to take into account the added physicality of the game being played at the next level, something that can be magnified in running backs, as they play the most demanding skill position or - at very least - the one that receives the most punishment.

Veteran RB Correll Buckhalter, also a newcomer to Denver in 2009 and the Broncos second leading rusher behind Moreno, stated that "at some point in the season, [the rookie] kind of hit a wall". Buckhalter added that Knowshon, who held out briefly last offseason while resolving his contract, would benefit greatly from a complete and uninterrupted training camp on top of the experience that he garnered on the field last year. Correll's perspective is a valuable one and his points should not be overlooked.

Even a cursory review of Moreno's 2009 statistics reveals the cutoff before which he hit the proverbial wall. During the final four games of the season - all losses on the way to another disappointing 8-8 finish without a playoff berth - Knowshon produced just 65 carries for 173 yards (2.7 YPC) and 2 TD. While there is a veritable litany of factors beyond his play at running back that could have - and almost certainly did - influence those totals, he wouldn't be the first rookie RB to fall before that wall. Perhaps the lone bright spot for him in that homestretch was the uptick in his receiving numbers. After amassing just 16 catches for 96 yards and 1 TD through the first thirteen weeks of the season, he tacked on 12 more receptions for 117 yards and 1 TD in the last four. This upgrade as a receiver, coupled with his strong start on the ground, provide embers of hope for a brighter future that I am more than happy to fan at this point.

What I have done to create my admittedly optimistic projection for Moreno's upcoming second professional season is actually quite simple, really. I extended his success on the ground over the first twelve weeks of 2009 to cover an entire season, did the same with his revelation in the air during the final four weeks of last year and upped the yardage and TD totals by a mere 10% across the board. I think that those three steps correct for his having hit the rookie wall, incorporate his increased experience and forecast his continued development. The results are quite promising, I'd say: 243 carries, 1135 rushing yards and 8 TD plus 48 catches for 515 receiving yards and 4 TD. Those numbers would put him among the top ten running backs in the league as an NFL sophomore, leaving him plenty of room still to continue his ascent towards a ceiling that I continue to believe is even higher than that.

In an era where the acronym NFL might as well stand for "Not For Long", we the fans are to often guilty of turning the page on chapters that haven't even been fully written yet. When I reopened this particular one, I was honestly expecting to find a bunch of broken promises with my name attached to them. What I came across, however, turned out to be quite hopeful. Not only was Moreno's 2009 better than I had thought, there's plenty of reason to think that he'll be even better than that in 2010.  

It's rare indeed when your pro team takes on a player from the college ranks that you really want for them, but that can turn out to be a heavy burden for a fan. When you intertwine your objective expectations and your subjective aspirations, even adequate results like those of Moreno's rookie season can feel somehow doubly disappointing. That said, if we dig a little deeper, we might just find yet another reason to keep our heads up and our eyes on the football field; and that's a good thing, because - knowing Knowshon - you're not going to want to miss just how he leaves that wall in the dust.