I would take Montee Ball in the first round of a fantasy football draft.
That statement isn’t intended for shock value. I promise you, faithful reader, that I would actually pull the trigger if we were drafting today. But in order to really feel comfortable about using a first-round pick on a guy with 120 career NFL carries, we have to look at everything very, very closely.
Therefore, I re-watched four of Ball’s highest-usage games from his rookie year: Week 2 vs. NYG, Week 8 vs. WSH, Week 14 vs. TEN and Week 17 vs. OAK. I charted each snap, looking for how he fared as a runner, receiver or blocker. That gave me a basis for the “ability” portion of his projection. You’ll also find notes on situation and job security below, two factors equally as important to running backs as talent.
Ball’s situation is why we’re talking about him so highly in the first place. Last season, Knowshon Moreno racked up 1,586 total yards and 13 touchdowns on 301 touches, finishing as fantasy’s No. 5 running back. He was able to do that not because he’s some spectacular back, but simply because he was a featured player in a Peyton Manning offense.
First and foremost, Peyton’s runners are up against run-friendly defensive personnel more often than anyone. The Broncos ran against dime packages a league-leading 15 percent of the time and were against nickel defenses 62 percent of the time (3rd-most in the league). Just 22 percent of the time did they face fewer than five defensive backs, lowest in the league. Ripping off chunk plays against these small fronts is like cutting through butter.
Second, the pace the Broncos play at creates more possessions and plays per game, which obviously means more opportunities for stats. Denver led the NFL at 72.3 offensive plays per game. As a team, they ranked second in pass attempts (675) and 11th in rush attempts (461). So although it’s correct to say the offense skews sharply toward the pass, it’s also correct to say that the running game gets more than the average share of work.
Finally, Manning produces more scoring opportunities than anyone else. Last year the Broncos averaged 4.3 trips to the red-zone per game, tops in the league. As stated above, Ball has the ideal skill set and frame to be the go-to back at the goal-line and the Broncos trust him there. His four touchdowns last season came from four, one, eight and five yards out.
A) Elusiveness: The Week 2 Giants game was a disaster. Out of Ball’s 12 carries, I gave him a “nice run” designation zero times. Eleven times, he went down on first contact. The one time that Ball tried to bounce a run outside, he was too slow to the edge and got swallowed up. He also lost a careless goal-line fumble (more on that below) and missed holes that Knowshon Moreno showed he could find.
Fast forward to later in the season and Ball was running with much more confidence. Go back and watch his touchdown run in Week 8 which he literally pushes the pile four yards. We started to see some of that inside burst and power that made Ball so special in college.
B) Running Style: Ball has very little lateral wiggle or long speed. This is not a guy that’s going to shake and bake in the open field and go 60 yards to the house. His feet in traffic leave a little to be desired as he often fails to find small holes or make the first defender miss cleanly.
Ball is more of a Mack truck, one that is very hard to take down once he gets momentum going. Try to tackle Ball up high and get trucked or dragged for yards. This style is ideal for short-yardage and goal-line situations and the Broncos knew that even last year. Ball led NFL running backs (minimum 500 yards) with a first down once every 3.42 carries in 2013.
C) Passing game: This was perhaps the most surprising thing I found while reviewing Ball’s games. The Broncos did not change their running back route tree at all when Ball checked in. I saw him run simple running back flares and check-down routes up the middle, but I also saw him line up wide and run a slant. He got open on a slant-n-go and on a stop route. The Broncos even called a shovel pass for him. Although Ball showed hard hands at times, rounded off too many patterns and wasn’t quick enough to create separation in many instances, the opportunities for a diverse route tree will be there. He had 20 catches on 405 snaps (4.9 percent) last season, while Moreno was at 60 catches on 847 snaps (7.0 percent). I think 45-50 catches for Ball this season is very realistic.
As for pass protection, this was one of the reasons Ball didn’t win the job out of camp last season. He blew a blitz pickup in a preseason game against the Seahawks and nearly got Peyton Manning killed by LB Bobby Wagner. But in the games I watched, I saw Ball stand tall in literally every pass pro opportunity except one (Week 17). Manning and the coaches grew to trust him in the role. Much like fumbles, people killing Ball for not being able to protect the passer are using selective memory.
D) Fumbles: Montee Ball is not a fumbler. I know that owners who drafted him last year and then got burned will beg to differ, but the evidence supports the argument that he just wasn’t ready at the beginning of the year (much like pass protection). Ball admitted that he was accustomed to rarely getting touched as he burst through holes in college, and had to adjust. You can see it on his weak, silly fumble against the Giants in Week 2 when Cullen Jenkins reaches across Ball’s body and punches the ball out easily. He had just one fumble on his final 151 touches in 2013 and didn’t fumble on any of his first 802 touches at Wisconsin. Ball’s issue from last year were easily corrected and a non-issue for me.
Some recent John Fox quotes on Ball to whet your palette:
“He’s a tremendous young player. He improved a lot – we needed him to a year ago. I thought he turned into a pro He understands how to prepare. Sometimes that may take a while. It didn’t take him as long. We’re looking for him to make good leaps.”
“He grew up as a player as far as being dependable, being accountable assignment-wise, all the things young players struggle with or have the opportunity to.”
I’ve already mentioned that Knowshon Moreno ranked fifth among fantasy running backs last season. The Broncos – and the rest of the league -- clearly were not impressed. Moreno attracted very little interest on the open market, settling for a one-year, $3 million deal from the Dolphins. If the Broncos wanted him back, they easily could have made those numbers work.
Instead, they’ve thrown all their support behind Ball by adding exactly no one to the backfield. That screams FAITH. Ball’s main competition will come from C.J. Anderson, a 5’8/224 big-bodied UDFA out of Cal last season. The staff clearly likes Anderson as they kept him on the roster despite a severe MCL sprain last season and moved him to the No. 3 job toward the end of the regular season. He’s a name to watch, but not a realistic threat for more than a handful of carries weekly as long as the “ability” portion on Ball rings true. Anderson is a rotational, situational kind of back.
Ronnie Hillman is not a threat. While reviewing the Ball tape, I consistently noticed Hillman getting bounced five yards back like a pinball anytime he took a decent hit in either pass pro or as a ball carrier. He’s averaging 3.91 YPC in his two-year career and has four fumbles on 140 carries. He was a healthy scratch down the stretch and through the playoffs behind Anderson.
The Broncos hold the 31st pick in each of the seven rounds in May’s draft. It’s a virtual lock that they’re going to use at least one of those picks on a running back, perhaps as early as Day 2. But the picks won’t necessarily be a shot at Ball as some will view it. When your backups are a UDFA (Anderson), a borderline NFL player (Hillman) and someone unlikely to make the final roster (Jerodis Williams), you need quality depth. As we saw last year, John Fox isn’t one to thrust rookies into huge roles regularly.
Montee Ball is not going to create a ton of yards when nothing is there because that’s not who he is. He’s not nearly as good as LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles, But he has the powerful, inside running style that will wear down defenses and produce a ton of touchdowns. Ball’s issues in pass protection and ball security are far overblown. He was a rookie that wasn’t quite ready and got outplayed by a veteran.
But given the opportunity, security and ability (all detailed above) Ball has in front of him, matching Knowshon Moreno’s numbers from last season will not be an issue. My top-12 right now looks like this:
1. LeSean McCoy
2. Jamaal Charles
3. Adrian Peterson
4. Matt Forte
5. Peyton Manning
6. Jimmy Graham
7. Calvin Johnson
8. Eddie Lacy
9. Montee Ball
10. Demaryius Thomas
11. Marshawn Lynch
12. Dez Bryant