No running back eligible for this year’s 2013 NFL Draft will have as glowing a resume as Wisconsin Badger Montee Ball.
In a Heisman contending 2011 season where he produced over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 39 touchdowns, Montee Ball really made a name for himself as a productive, consistent and well-rounded running back prospect.
A finalist for the Doak Walker Award, as well as earning 1st Team All-Big Ten and All-American honors, Ball was without a doubt one of the top running backs in college football last season.
The question entering this season for Montee Ball centered around whether or not he could duplicate those numbers with new starting offensive linemen at center, right guard and right tackle; losing right guard Kevin Zeitler to the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and center Peter Konz to the second round, Montee Ball’s sense of timing and chemistry would be drastically altered in his final season.
Add onto that the adjustment with a vicious off the field assault that left Ball with a concussion, and there were many negative factors providing adversity for the Badger running back.
Due to such adversity, it was of no surprise to see Ball struggle coming out of the gate. Without wide running lanes he had grown accustomed to, Montee Ball initially showed signs of frustration before finally rounding out into form. Montee has run for over 100 yards in four of his last five outings, posting a total of 10 rushing touchdowns. Allowing his retooled offensive line extra time to pull and get to their assignments in the power running game, Ball has displaying improved patience and footwork in pressing the hole.
On pace for a second consecutive season of more than 300 carries and 1,500 yards, the fact remains that he once again is producing at a high level; which begs the question, “Why aren’t NFL scouts thrilled about Montee Ball?”
Well the immediate response might be that, contrary to this article’s headline, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has spoken with several NFL scouts who view Montee Ball as the top running back in this year’s draft class.
While I cannot refute Bielema’s statement regarding what scouts have told him, as Bielema has an outstanding track record and obvious rapport with NFL teams, I will say that more than likely, these scouts were speaking in hyperbole.
Looking back at Wisconsin running backs selected in the first round, with former Heisman Trophy winner, Ron Dayne selected 11th overall in 2000 or Michael Bennett selected 27th overall in the 2001 draft, the high level of college production these backs experienced in Madison, Wisconsin never fully translated to the NFL game.
Before truly assessing Ball as a prospect, many concerns, beginning with college usage, need to be properly addressed.
Instead of talking numbers in this article, I would recommend reading Optimum Scouting’s Eric Galko and his piece on why Montee Ball should have declared for the 2012 NFL Draft.
Adding the 2012 NFL Draft results to the numbers already drawn by Eric, only 52 running backs have been selected in the previous six NFL Drafts, with just 17 of those being seniors. On average, about three senior running backs come off the board between rounds one and three. While each draft is, in and of itself, an entirely different draft, the underlying principle here is the decreasing value teams are placing on the running back position.
More distressing a statistic, however, is the fact that of those 52 backs selected, only three notched over 875 carries. Montee Ball has already eclipsed the 800 carry total for his career and will soon pass the 875 mark, with continued usage.
According to our running back rankings at Optimum Scouting, Montee Ball should be taken in the 4th round or later possibly; however, there’s a possibility that some team will take him at the tail end of the 3rd round.
So what exactly are the issues regarding Montee Ball as an NFL back?
Playing at what can be referred to as a “stopwatch position," Ball’s 40 yard dash numbers will be the truest indicator of his draft stock.
To an unfair extent, lacking elite deep speed will immediately lower Montee Ball on draft boards by the time April rolls around. Even though his well-rounded, calculated style of running enables him to take full advantage of blocking on the perimeter or between the tackles, it’s been proven time and again that NFL teams are less willing to spend high draft picks on running backs with slow 40-times.
It’s easy to hear that previous statements and point to the success of rookie Alfred Morris or All-Pro Arian Foster, whose slow times led to diminished draft stock. Arian Foster went undrafted altogether due to his 4.69 pro day run, while Alfred Morris slid down into the 6th round with his 4.67 NFL Combine 40-yard time.
The difference between Ball and those two is that Morris and Foster both possess a variety of special traits ranging from balance in traffic, leg drive, body type upside and more quick-twitched athleticism.
Though very instinctual and natural in the open field, Montee Ball is still unable to plant and drive in a one-cut manner. Ball too often is forced to gather his feet to change directions, thereby telegraphing his move to the defender. Not having the explosive burst out of such a two-step cut, Ball struggles to elude defenders entirely.
Although it is fine to not be the most dynamic of runners and still remain productive at the NFL level, what concerns me even moreso than Ball’s lack of burst and speed is his balance in traffic. Ball has clearly shown elite level vision with clear running lanes and dominating blockers in front of him, yet at the next level those holes will only get smaller, not bigger, making the ability to create yards for yourself that much more crucial for success.
After reading first level blockers, Ball does an outstanding job of shifting his vision to the second level in order to read his downfield blockers, whether that is a tight end, receiver or fullback. After cutting off of the initial block and readjusting his sight line to the lead blocking fullback, Ball shows the ball carrier vision you want to see out of your tailback, in correctly cutting once more off of the secondary blocker.
So, in essence, here we have a Big Ten running back that possesses slightly above average top end speed, offers little to offer in terms of power or leg drive, does not have the quick twitch burst or cutting skills to elude defenders at the next level and has been overused at the college ranks as a true workhorse tailback. The best comparison I can offer would be Ben-Jarvus Green Ellis, without the leg drive.
In summary, Montee Ball without a doubt has the ability to be a producer at the next level if a team that has a strong offensive line selects him. Nobody questions this man’s toughness, competitiveness or vision as a runner. Where questions lie, regard the physical tools that every great NFL back possesses. At this point, I would project Ball in the mid 4.6 range, close to a 4.62 unofficial time at the combine.
Production and experience are certainly expected with top flight NFL Draft prospects; however, they are not, in any circumstance the "end all, be all." Instead of focusing on the gaudy numbers Montee Ball has accrued during his stay at Wisconsin, it is critical to breakdown the physical tools and traits that translate to the next level. If college production was an accurate indicator of NFL success, then Travis Prentice (whose NCAA record for touchdowns will likely be broken by Montee Ball) would not have had an NFL career of just three seasons.
Montee Ball will be a good NFL back, just not a great one.