Willis McGahee’s decision to skip offseason workouts isn’t what cost the veteran running back his job with the Denver Broncos.
His absence, however, did allow the organization to see ample promise in rookie Montee Ball and abundant progress from second-year speedster Ronnie Hillman.
That gave them the faith to put the football and their fortunes in the hands of the two young running backs Thursday by releasing McGahee, the 31-year-old bruiser who led them in rushing last season despite missing the final two months with a right knee injury.
The move wasn’t unexpected, but the timing was a bit of a surprise.
The Broncos could have kept McGahee through training camp as an insurance policy against injury even if he wasn’t going to vie for the starting job. Instead, they sent him on his way just before wrapping up their three-day mandatory minicamp where McGahee had gotten just a handful of handoffs.
‘‘In fairness to him, I think [for] the things he’s done for us, this gives him a better opportunity to hook on somewhere,’’ coach John Fox said. ‘‘It gives us a better opportunity to give some of these young guys more reps. It’s just a conscious decision for us to get younger.’’
McGahee was mostly a spectator this week and seemed resigned to his impending release when on Tuesday he said, ‘‘If it happens, it happens.’’
Hours after releasing McGahee, the Broncos signed Ball, their second-round draft pick, along with cornerback Kayvon Webster, their third-round selection.
‘‘I’m not here for money, honestly,’’ Ball said. ‘‘And that’s what I told my agent. I told him not to bother them that much. I’m just blessed to be here because it’s always been my favorite team.’’
McGahee had two years and $4.5 million remaining on the four-year, $9.5 million deal he signed in 2011. By releasing him, the Broncos will take a $1 million cap hit this season.
The Broncos are still deep at the position with former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno and versatile fullback Jacob Hester, among other veterans, also in the mix.
Smith OK with Sanchez
Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith clarified his ‘‘no comment’’ responses from Wednesday — that seemed to suggest there could be some tension between him and Mark Sanchez — when asked if he would join Sanchez’s ‘‘Jets West’’ workouts next month normally held at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School. “Myself and Mark had never discussed that,’’ Smith said after the team completed its three-day minicamp. ‘‘It kind of caught me off guard because it’s not on my schedule or anything. So, I was like, ‘What is Jets West?’ Basically, I didn’t comment because I was always taught that if you don’t know exactly what you’re answering about not to comment on it.’’ Sanchez usually invites all of the team’s offensive skill players to spend a week working out together at his alma mater, and to bond as teammates as they wait for training camp to begin. While Smith said that Sanchez hadn’t ‘‘officially extended the hand to me,’’ he insisted that there’s ‘‘no problem there’’ . . . The Steelers signed fourth-round draft pick Landry Jones to a four-year deal. The former Oklahoma quarterback is the ninth and final Pittsburgh draft pick to come to terms. Details were not disclosed. Pittsburgh selected Jones with the 115th overall pick and is the highest draft pick the Steelers have used on a quarterback since taking Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004.