If there was any weakness the Denver Broncos stellar offense had in 2012, it was the running game. With a backfield riddled by age, injuries and inconsistency, the Broncos finished 2012 as the NFL’s 16th ranked rushing offense. Also, in 3 of the past 4 seasons, the Broncos have ranked in the bottom half of the league in rushing yards per game. Oh yeah…they actually led the NFL in yards on the ground in 2011, but that was mainly because Tim Tebow barely even threw the ball. Even though the Broncos are a “pass first” offense, head coach John Fox is an old-school football guru who has the zest for a productive running game. With Peyton Manning now 37 years old, the need to take pressure off him is higher than ever. The best way to do so is with a running back that can stay healthy, keep opposing offenses off the field, and close out games by milking the clock. With the 58th overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Broncos just might have found that player in Montee Ball.
Consistency Thy Name Is Montee
Out of all the 2013 running back prospects, Montee Ball was arguably the most consistent. With 32 starts in 4 years at the University of Wisconsin, Ball was the quintessential bell-cow runner, rushing for an astounding 5,140 yards on 924 attempts; an average of 5.56 yards per carry! He was also known for his patented ability to find pay-dirt, as Ball set the all-time NCAA record with 83 total touchdowns! In addition, Ball ran for 100+ yards in 25 of his last 33 outings. Ball was also able to stay productive regardless of the personnel on the field. Despite running behind a mediocre offensive line, and facing 9 top-50 college defenses in 2012, Ball still averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 130.7 yards per game. Most important, through all that grinding, Ball was remarkably able to avoid the injury bug, which devastated the Broncos RB corps in 2012.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Ball may not be the flashiest guy on the field, but he is a hard-nosed zone runner who is difficult for defenders to tackle. With good vision and superb change-of-direction ability, he finds lanes well and is rather quick in tight areas. In addition to being a dependable inside runner, Ball also possesses the speed to get around the edges. Ball can also be rather versatile if given the chance. Despite catching only 59 balls during his 4-year tenure at Wisconsin, he is a better receiver out of the backfield than many think. A scouting report on NFL.com described Ball as a “natural receiver” who is good at adjusting to passes whether they’re in the flat or over the middle. The report went on to say that Ball “continues downfield fluidly” while going out for a pass. Ball also has a natural stiff-arm move that he uses to elude defenders in space, particularly after a catch.
However, Ball has his work cut out for him as he begins his NFL career. He has average size and straight-line speed, which will make it more difficult for him to break free from NFL tacklers. Also, despite being a fairly decent pass protector in college, Ball will need to improve on those skills the most in order to further succeed at the pro level. Pass blocking in the NFL is a completely different animal given the faster speed of the pro game, and it’s an area where most rookie RB’s tend to struggle. Obviously in a Peyton Manning-led offense, running backs need to be able to pass protect at a high level, thus Ball might not see the field a whole lot on passing downs his rookie season.
Too Much Tread??
Perhaps the biggest concern scouts have about Ball is whether or not his excessive college workload will shorten his NFL shelf life. Ball leaves Wisconsin with a mind-boggling 983 total touches, and since running backs are known to have shorter-than-average NFL careers, that worry is highly justifiable. However, several current and former NFL running backs who’ve gone on to have productive careers had similar questions coming out of college. For example, Ray Rice totaled 947 touches (910 carries, 37 receptions) in three seasons at Rutgers, just 36 fewer touches than Ball had in four seasons at Wisconsin. Also, 663 of Ball’s 924 rushing attempts occurred in his final two college seasons. Ray Rice, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Steven Jackson each had more carries in their final two collegiate years with 715, 673, and 669 respectively. Because of what those durable runners went on to do, it’s fair to say that Ball’s rewards far outweigh his risks.
Analysis & Grade
Montee Ball is not the sexiest running back to enter the NFL, but he brings the Broncos two key elements that their running game has recently lacked: durability and consistency. Although Ball will probably not be the workhorse he was at Wisconsin, he will still probably get 15-20 carries a game if given the starting job. His abilities to stay healthy, take care of the football (2 fumbles in 924 career carries), gain the hard yards and find the end zone could very well help the Broncos in tougher games this season. A productive Ball can help extend leads and drives, keep dangerous opposing offenses off the field, and most of all, close out games. The Broncos obviously know that, which is why Ball and Peyton Manning have been spending extra time together after practice. “We are going to count on (Montee Ball) in a big way this year,” Manning said. “He’s a rookie, but coach (John) Fox isn’t going to bring him along slowly.” John Elway often credits RB Terrell Davis as the key piece that completed his Super Bowl puzzle. In 2013, it just might as well come down to the production of a man who grew up idolizing Davis to finish the Broncos journey to a third Lombardi trophy.