It’s not uncommon for draft picks to leave experts, analysts and fans scratching their heads in the aftermath of the draft. Any pick can be criticized for a number of different reasons including perceived value, player ability, team need and scheme fit.
The Denver Broncos did not escape criticism this year having selected Wisconsin running back Montee Ball with the 58th overall pick in the draft. Ball was selected ahead of more heralded running back prospects, he is not particularly explosive and he had 924 collegiate carries. A team’s second-round pick should scream success, but that’s not the case with Ball unless you dive deeper.
There are two redeeming and important qualities that can make this a good one for the Broncos: need and scheme fit. With Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman as the primary running backs on the roster, the Broncos needed a reliable every-down option and one that fits the offense. Ball may have been the only running back in the draft that fit both requirements perfectly.
It’s not hard to make a case that team need and scheme fit are the two more important factors that contribute to a draft picks success. For example, it’s tough to be a successful draft pick when you are buried on the depth chart behind a very good player. Brock Osweiler may end up being a horrible pick if he spends his entire rookie contract sitting behind Peyton Manning.
How a prospect fits into the team’s scheme is also vital to his success and it isn’t talked about enough. Some players only fit a certain scheme and using them incorrectly could impact their ability to reach their full potential. A sure-fire way to ruin good prospects is to not put them in a position to be successful.
The Denver Broncos had six running backs under contract headed into the draft, which seems like a lot, but there isn’t a future three-down running back among them. Jeremiah Johnson is basically a fullback, Lance Ball only plays on special teams and former undrafted free agent Mario Fannin can’t stay healthy.
That leaves just McGahee, Moreno and Hillman as possible starters, but each of them comes with serious questions marks. McGahee will turn 32 in October, tore his MCL last November and fumbled five times in 10 games last season. Moreno averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last year and has basically been a bust since being drafted in the first round in 2009.
Hillman is probably too small to ever become a legitimate three-down running back at just 185 pounds. Even Hillman’s ability to break off long gains is somewhat in question as he carried the ball 85 times in 2012 and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. Hillman tried to bounce everything outside as a rookie, but the success of a zone scheme often relies on the running back using his vision to find the running lane—wherever it may develop.
There are also monetary considerations that make selecting a running back a good decision for the Broncos. McGahee will make $3 million in 2013 and Moreno will make $3.3 million according to overthecap.com. Both McGahee and Moreno are being paid like starters, and it’s only reasonable to keep one of them on the roster.
Moreno is much younger than McGahee and the Broncos don’t save much if they were to release him, which makes him likely to stick on the roster for another year. Moreno also doesn’t have the fumble issues like McGahee and teams aren’t overly tolerant of players with ball security issues.
Is drafting for need a bad strategy?
With McGahee a strong candidate to be released, only Hillman would be under contract next season. The Broncos are loaded at many positions, but they needed a running back to pick up any slack left by an explosive passing game.
You could argue that drafting for need causes teams to reach in the draft and that could be the case with the selection of Ball. The Broncos may have opted for Ball because of their need, which is a luxury a good team has because they have a lot of good players already on the roster. Essentially, good teams can afford to waste some draft pick value to secure the player they want.
Every team approaches the draft differently and the Broncos quite clearly went into it hoping to fill a few gaps on an otherwise good roster. It wasn’t until late in the fifth round that the Broncos strayed from a need-based philosophy.
Ball’s value to the Broncos was perhaps greater because of their need than it was to anyone else. The Broncos clearly viewed Ball as the best running back remaining and were unsure that one they liked would fall to them in the third round.
One of the primary reasons Ball was a good fit for the Broncos is that he’s a great scheme fit. Ball is a one-cut runner that will fit well in a zone-blocking scheme, which is what the Broncos primarily use when they decide run the ball.
Eddie Lacy was still available and has the ability to run inside zone, outside zone and traditional downhill man blocked plays. Lacy also had more durability questions than Ball, despite having only 34 percent of the college carries on his tires.
The Packers selected Lacy shortly after Ball was selected and their Director of College Scouting, Brian Gutekunst, felt the need to comment on both running backs considering the close proximity they were drafted.
“We liked Montee Ball a lot,” Gutekunst said via Packers.com. “We had them in the same range. They’re different kinds of backs.”
Vic Ketchman went on to write that Ball is more of a one-cut runner that would have fit in Green Bay, but that the Packers needed a pounder like Lacy, who has nearly 20 pounds on Ball.
The Broncos clearly weren’t the only team that had Ball in the same range as Lacy and you might even say the Packers were going to take Ball ahead of Lacy given the opportunity. There were some other options that would have fit Denver’s scheme like Johnathan Franklin, but there are two concerns with him that were not a concern with Ball.
The Packers ended up pairing Lacy with Franklin, which makes sense given that Franklin is a one-cut runner like Ball that fits the zone scheme. The main difference between Ball and Franklin is ball security and pass protection.
Franklin had ball security issues until last season when he started carrying a football around with him everywhere—even sleeping with it. Franklin is also not considered a great pass protector, which is something that NFL teams like the Broncos value (maybe even more than they should).
NFL.com said this about Franklin’s pass-blocking skills:
“Pass protection skills are not up to snuff; he’ll throw his body into an opponent at times, but his cut-block attempts often come up completely empty.”
Sigmund Bloom’s scouting report on Franklin didn’t hold anything back when it came to Franklin’s pass-blocking skills:
“He is a weak pass-blocker and will get exploited if he is used in that role in the pros. This might limit him to be a committee back at the next level.”
Did the Broncos get this pick right?
When you consider all the factors, it makes a lot of sense why Ball was graded higher by the Broncos than the running backs that many people believed should go ahead of him. Ball fumbled just twice in college, had fewer injury concerns than Lacy and has the ability to stay on the field on third down.
It appears that the Packers were considering taking Ball, so it’s not likely the Broncos could have gotten him later. There is such a thing as a reach, but Ball may have been more well-liked by than previously believed, especially among teams that will use a lot of zone in 2013.
Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes pegged Ball as a second- or third-round pick in his pre-draft scouting report and prophetically hit on what the Broncos are likely going to do with Ball and Hillman:
“With a well-rounded game and NFL skill set, Ball has the look of a feature back. A team may want to pair him with a faster player with more receiving prowess, but he looks capable of carrying the load.”
All things considered, Ball was the best pick possible for the Broncos if they were locked into drafting a running back. The Broncos wanted a player that fit their scheme and can stay on the field, and that’s exactly what they are getting with Ball.