South Dakota Wisconsin Football

Having A “Ball” In Denver

By Joe Kilroy

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Leading into April’s NFL draft it was widely speculated the Broncos would use one of their early picks on a running back, so it comes as no surprise they dedicated their second rounder to the position.

What did surprise some is that they selected Montee Ball out of Wisconsin as opposed to Eddie Lacy, who was taken just three picks later by the Green Bay Packers. All things considered, however, Ball appears to be a strong fit within the Broncos offense. He also comes with less durability concerns than Lacy.

Ball is commonly regarded as a one-cut back best suited behind a zone blocking scheme upfront, which is exactly what he’ll be running behind in Denver. From footage I’ve seen Ball is a shifty and decisive runner in tight spaces. He isn’t what I would label an elusive back, but he can make defenders miss and then quickly gain the open yards ahead of him. He doesn’t dance from side-to-side and attempt to outrun or outmaneuver tacklers. Instead he runs from north-to-south and simply shimmies only when necessary. This is an excellent trait for a running back to possess at the NFL level – especially as it relates to one that isn’t simply regarded as a “change of pace” or “scat” back.

When it comes to pure speed some may feel Ball lacks in this area due to his 4.66 second forty-yard dash at the NFL combine. But again, from the footage I’ve seen he possesses plenty of giddy-up to excel as a pro. While I must admit I didn’t notice Ball reaching a second gear after breaking into the open field, I was impressed by the one speed he does operate at. And by this I mean Ball appears to reach his top end speed rather quickly once he plants his foot upon seeing an opening and picking up the yards available for the taking. He accomplishes that and then some.

This speed he operates at is enough for him to break into the second level of a defense and rip off gains of ten-to-twenty-plus yards. In the NFL that ability may not stand out quite as much due to the quicker defenders he will be going against, but it’s not as if he won’t be capable of a few long carries here and there. His ability to run through contact without it hindering his acceleration and momentum will aid him in this area as well. For those still fixated on his 4.66 forty-yard dash at the NFL combine, however, it should be brought to their attention that Bell fared much better when he posted 4.46 and 4.49 forty-yard times at Wisconsin’s Pro Day.

In order to see immediate playing time in the Denver backfield Ball will have to prove he is a reliable blocker in pass protection. While it’s hard to find any footage to grade Ball’s abilities in that department, the information I have come across indicates it shouldn’t be an issue for him.

By Ball’s own admission he has room for improvement in that area, but it isn’t regarded as a weakness in his play. It’s simply something he knows he can get better at, which is a good sign because it shows his willingness and desire to do so. That should serve to settle any concerns fantasy owners may have about his abilities to step in and make a significant contribution as a rookie.

It’s also comforting to know John Elway, the Broncos Vice President of Football Operations, recently regarded Ball as a player Denver feels could be “a three-down guy for us.”

From everything I’ve seen I believe that to be an accurate assessment of Ball’s abilities.

So what could possibly stand in the way of Ball being a standout performer as a rookie? Well, the only considerable competition he will face for playing time comes in the form of Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, and Ronnie Hillman. But if Denver felt any of those backs were capable of functioning as their primary ball carrier over the course of an entire NFL season it’s doubtful they would have used a second round pick on Ball to begin with.

Willis McGahee has been a productive player over the course of his ten-year NFL career, but he turns 32 in late October and is coming off a season in which a torn MCL and broken leg forced him to the sidelines for the final six games of the year. Although currently on the roster he isn’t a lock to remain with the team come opening day.

In Knowshon Moreno Denver has a back that played well for them down the stretch following McGahee’s absence, but he’s widely regarded as a bust since entering the league as the 12th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. He also has legitimate durability concerns which were further evidenced last year when he was forced to leave a playoff game against the Ravens with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in the off-season. And if Willis McGahee were to remain with the Broncos this year it’s very possible Moreno could be axed instead.

Ronnie Hillman, a third round pick by the Broncos last year, is expected to carve out a role for himself in the Denver backfield. But at 5’9” and barely pushing 190 pounds he isn’t a likely candidate to handle a heavy workload. Instead he would be best suited as a complimentary back used in tandem with Montee Ball.

I must admit that my initial reaction to Ball landing in Denver wasn’t a positive one. I originally felt it could be a messy running back by committee destination in which Ball would be furthest buried on the depth chart. Upon looking more closely at things, however, I now feel Ball was drafted into an excellent situation.

Willis McGahee is in the twilight of his career. Knowshon Moreno doesn’t have a future in Denver. And Ronnie Hillman will be best utilized as a change-of-pace back limited to a certain number of touches per game. That leaves the door wide open for Montee Ball to step in and immediately take over as the primary ball carrier for the Broncos.

And as if the opportunity to be an immediate starter weren’t compelling enough to fantasy owners, the high powered offense Ball is now a part of only further aids his prospects within the realm of dynasty and redraft leagues alike.

Denver averaged 30.1 points scored per game last season, second to only the New England Patriots. And the 397.9 yards they compiled on a weekly basis was fourth most in the league. With the additions of Wes Welker and Montee Ball there is little to no reason to believe the Broncos will see a significant drop-off in either of those categories.

Furthermore, regarding the offense’s production that relates most relevantly to Montee Ball, Denver was just one of nine franchises to average thirty or more carries per game last season. They were just one of two teams that did so however while averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry (the New York Jets also held that dubious distinction). As a result they ranked just 16th in total rushing yards in 2012.

What this indicates is that Denver will have plenty of carries to dole out in the upcoming season. And considering they averaged a mundane 3.8 yards per rushing attempt last year using the quartet of McGahee, Moreno, Hillman, and Lance Ball it makes little sense to believe they will leave primary rushing duties in either of their hands in the year ahead.

McGahee did average 4.4 yards per carry on 167 rushing attempts before succumbing to injury last year, but it’s unlikely he will be capable of doing so again given his age and the injury he is coming back from. He also had issues holding onto the ball last season as he fumbled five times while losing four of them in just ten games played. Montee Ball, meanwhile, fumbled the ball only twice throughout the 924 carries he handled in his collegiate career.

Montee Ball appears to have all the tools to be a productive three-down workhorse back at the NFL level in my opinion. And he’s been drafted into a situation where I believe he can excel immediately. If the Broncos should decide to bring him along slowly for one reason or another, however, it’s hard to imagine he won’t breakthrough in his second season provided Peyton Manning is still under center for the Broncos.

If Ball is the Broncos primary ball carrier for the majority of the upcoming season I’d say it’s safe to expect 1050-1150 yards rushing, 30-35 receptions for 240-280 yards receiving, and anywhere from 7-9 rushing touchdowns from the rookie.

We’ll have to wait until closer to the start of the season though before gaining a more accurate assessment as to how the Broncos plan to split duties amongst their running backs this year.

Read more DFW articles by Joe Kilroy