Rookie Outlook: Montee Ball
By Zach Law
When the Denver Broncos lost Knowshon Moreno to a knee injury in the overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, rookie Ronnie Hillman got the green light. He finished the day with 22 carries for 83 yards but could not convert key short-yardage opportunities. The result of the game showed head coach John Fox that he needed a better option to start at running back for the Broncos.
With the 58th overall pick in the NFL draft, the Denver Broncos selected Montee Ball of Wisconsin. Ball had astounding production in college, with more than 5,000 rushing yards, almost 1,000 total touches, and 83 touchdowns. Ball scored 40 touchdowns during his junior year (33 rushing, six receiving, one passing), which is something you usually see in a video game. Wisconsin loves to have that one lead back, and for the last four years Ball was that guy.
There’s a strange dichotomy for college running backs. In order to get noticed by the NFL, the back needs a lot of touches. At the same time, if the back has a lot of touches, there’s worry about wear and tear. Ball has the size, coming in at 5’11” and 215 pounds. He ran a 4.66 40-yard dash at the combine, nothing special, although he improved his times at the Wisconsin Pro Day. He had 59 receptions in college, so there’s potential for Ball to be a three-down back.
Ball was drafted to be the main running back in Denver. That role was filled by Willis McGahee for 2011 and the first half of 2012. After McGahee was injured, former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno took over. In the past two years, McGahee averaged more than 16 carries a game and when Moreno took over, he averaged more than 21 carries a game.
One potential monkey wrench in the works is John Fox’s history with rookie running backs. Cecil Lammey, who’s been covering the Broncos since Jake Plummer was the quarterback, took a look at John Fox and rookie running backs. The best season for a rookie under Fox is Jonathan Stewart in 2008, who had 184 carries for 836 yards and most importantly, 10 touchdowns.
Fox isn’t one of those coaches who refuse to change his ways. He handed the offensive reins over to Tim Tebow two years ago, and it completely changed the team’s offensive outlook. They also won a division title and a playoff game.
Ball can earn that McGahee/Moreno role, and he doesn’t just have to be a between-the-tackles guy. He has the open-field moves to make a guy miss, and has the speed to run the old Peyton Manning favorite, the outside zone stretch play. Last year’s rookie, Ronnie Hillman, struggled in pass protection, and while Ball is only an adequate pass blocker, he can be a receiver out of the backfield, so it’s not crazy to think that he could be on the field for three downs - especially if he improves in blocking, which is his self-proclaimed offseason focus.
The Broncos want to speed up their offense so it makes sense to keep a running back on the field for an entire series. That being said, John Fox likes to get two backs involved, so Hillman will get a good amount of touches.
If you want a good comparison for what Ball could do in his rookie year, look at Joseph Addai. He finished his rookie year of 2006 with 226 carries for 1,081 yards, 40 receptions for 325 yards and eight total touchdowns. He was a low-end RB1 that year. Consider that defenses are going to focus on the pass, what with that Peyton guy running the show, so Ball isn’t going to see a lot of stacked boxes. He can be a fantasy bargain if you pick him up as your RB3 in redrafts. In dynasty, enjoy him as long as the Peyton Manning show continues.