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Knowshon Moreno signs 1-year deal with Dolphins, and turns up the pressure

Knowshon Moreno signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins on Thursday, and in the process heaped immense pressure on his heir in Denver, Montee Ball, to perform.

Kevork Djansezian

Knowshon Moreno has signed with the Miami Dolphins, removing arguably the best available running back from the NFL free agency pool. Moreno's deal is for one year, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, with financial information yet to be revealed. For the Dolphins, Moreno's signing indicates that the organization believes that last season's rushing problems weren't solely due to turmoil along the offensive line. For Moreno's former team, the Denver Broncos, the willingness to let Moreno go shows a lot of confidence in 2013 rookie Montee Ball.

Moreno's stock rose dramatically during his contract year. After four seasons marred by injuries and subpar play for the former first-round draft pick, Moreno handled the starting reins at running back and posted career numbers. He rushed for 1,038 yards -- his first season with 1,000-plus yard rushing -- on 241 carries to average 4.3 yards per carry, and had a career-high 10 rushing touchdowns for a prolific Broncos offense.

Moreno's contract number will be intriguing to see. He was considered perhaps the only sure thing in a relatively weak running back market. This year's free agent running backs have been receiving contracts averaging out to roughly $3.5 million per season nearly across the board, and something similar for Moreno could be yet another sign of the diminishing value being placed on ball carriers in today's NFL.

Regardless, the Dolphins apparently placed enough emphasis on the position to snag one of its biggest names. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas often struggled as a tandem. Miller led the way last season with 709 yards rushing on 177 carries -- good for roughly 4.0 yards per carry. Thomas handled backup and short-yardage duties, and averaged a much more paltry 3.7 YPC on 109 carries, giving him 406 yards rushing on the season.

Whether Moreno will be a cure-all for the Dolphins remains to be seen. The shadow of four mediocre seasons still looms despite the encouraging signs of his most recent work. Critics may point out that he had the benefit of the league's best passing game and an elite offensive line last season, two things he won't have with the Dolphins even though Ryan Tannehill and a rebuilt offensive line should both be better next season. The offensive line could be Moreno's biggest obstacle to success. Adding Branden Albert in free agency was a big win for Miami, but there are still enough unproven bodies up front to cause concern.

As for the Broncos, they will almost assuredly be giving Ball a full workload, with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson relegated to significantly subservient roles behind him and Moreno last season. Ball's 2013 season picked up steam late in the year after a rocky start. He uncharacteristically lost two fumbles over the course of his first three games in the league, but steadily regained a consistent role and became the Broncos' short-yardage back. Ball notched his first career 100-yard game with 117 yards rushing on 13 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13.

The Broncos' offense isn't expect to suffer much turnover before the start of the 2014 season, so Ball, too, will be taking a strict litmus test. With the offensive line intact and Peyton Manning once again throwing to an obscenely talented receiving corps (minus Eric Decker), fans will compare his production directly against Moreno's. By letting Moreno walk, the Broncos essentially threw their full support behind the 2013 second-round pick. It'll be up to Ball to reward them.

And it'll be up to Moreno to prove he isn't just a system running back. On a one-year contract, he will also be heavily pressured to perform. While both players have recent numbers to point to against any potential naysayers, there are enough questions to make this upcoming season particularly fascinating for both. For Ball, as with any highly touted young player, there's the abiding anxiety over not yet fulfilled hype. For Moreno, the question is whether he is truly worthy of being called a marquee player.