Montee Ball, the two-time All-American and all-time FBS touchdown leader at the University of Wisconsin, is now a member of the Denver Broncos and has already become one of the most speculated fantasy football prospects for the upcoming season. Although Ball is slated behind Ronnie Hillman on the Broncos’ depth chart, many fantasy experts are still picking him as a potential breakout player.
The Broncos used their 2nd round draft pick on him, so they clearly value him highly. You can’t blame the Broncos for falling in love with Ball, as he is a proven workhouse who has a nose for the end zone. In addition, he has soft hands and is above average in pass protection. Still, it does say something that Ball is behind Hillman on the depth chart. I expect an even split in carries between Ball and Hillman for the first few weeks of the season, with some others even going to third-string Knowshon Moreno. Ironically, Ball is built to be an every down back while Hillman is more fit for third downs, so it shouldn’t take long for the two to flip spots on the depth chart.
Even when Ball does permanently take over the starting role, I don’t expect him to receive too many carries this season. One reason is because of John Fox’s history with rookie running backs dating back to his days in Carolina. DeShaun Foster (2003), DeAngelo Williams (2006), and Jonathan Stewart (2008) were all drafted by Fox with picks higher than Ball’s 58th overall, yet none of the three had great rookie years. They all finished with fewer than 200 carries, and Stewart had the best year by finishing as the 24th best overall running back. Even Williams, who would go on to finish the 2008 season as the top overall running back, rushed for only 501 yards his rookie year. Yes, all three of these running backs were brought into better running back committees than the Broncos currently have, but history does show Fox’s stance on rookie running backs.
Another reason for concern about Ball’s production is that the Broncos are a team that loves to throw. The Broncos passed on 55% of their plays last season, and that includes the blowouts in which the Broncos barely threw at all in second halves. This offseason they added Wes Welker to play in the slot, so the percentage of pass plays will only increase this season. While this shift will improve Ball’s receiving numbers and PPR value, it lowers his stock in standard scoring leagues.
The last reason I worry about Ball this season is the current state of the Broncos’ offensive line. The line has been decimated by injuries, which was evident in their first preseason game against the 49ers on Thursday night. Quarterbacks were being pressured and running backs were getting stuffed all night, with almost all of the pressure coming from up the middle. Ball was an excellent runner between the tackles at Wisconsin, but he might not see the same kinds of holes this year with linemen playing out of position for the Broncos. Ball is also a highly valued prospect because of his prowess as a goal-line runner, but if the middle of the offensive line isn’t able to get as much push as they’d like, then his touchdown total might dip.
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Despite all of my fears about Montee Ball for this upcoming season, I do think he will be a serviceable fantasy player. He should have very good reception and touchdown totals, and I expect him to have a few games where he rattles off big yardage in garbage time. Still, I am not as high on him as most. Most experts are ranking Ball as about the 20th overall fantasy running back, but I’d place him in the 25th-30th range. In most mock drafts that I’ve participated in, someone reaches for Ball way too early. Every fantasy owner wants to be the one who stole the breakout running back, a la Clinton Portis in 2002 or Alfred Morris last season. However, there are just some seasons where no rookie running backs have great years, and I could very well see 2013 being one of them. If you don’t feel the same way and are set on picking a rookie to start at running back for your team, I’d lean towards someone like Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Ball who is going to get the bulk of his team’s carries.
While I hope I’m wrong, I just don’t see 2013 as Montee Ball’s breakout year; I would draft him as a Flex play instead of as a #2 running back. I do think that Montee Ball will be a fantasy football stud one day, just not this season.