With the 58th pick of the 2013 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos selected running back Montee Ball out of the University of Wisconsin. After the pick, many in the organization were gushing about Ball’s ability to be a workhorse running back.
The fit with Ball could be identified easily, and on paper the combination looked like a good one. The plan seemed to be starting Ball as soon as he was ready.
Six weeks into the regular season, not only is Ball not starting, but he’s barely seeing the field.
So the question becomes: What went wrong? And can Ball bounce back to be a long-term answer for the Broncos at the running back position?
To understand what has gone wrong with Ball, let’s take a look at the entire picture and decipher if any clues can be gathered from what we saw in college. We also need to determine if Ball can turn things around at the pro level.
The College Tape
During his time at Wisconsin, Ball was incredibly productive for the Badgers. In four years of college football, he compiled 983 touches and only fumbled the ball five times.
Ball is your classic grinder who can pick up tough yards between the tackles. While not creative or elusive, Ball is the type of back who loves to initiate contact and strike defenders first. He runs with good leg drive and determination.
Ball most always falls forward after contact and does not give up after he's hit. He loves to jump cut but sometimes is caught going laterally too much.
Speed is not the name of his game. And if he gets to the second level, Ball can be chased down from behind.
He is known as a vocal leader with a team first attitude. His nose for the end zone is what he's most known for. Ball finished his career as the NCAA leader in rushing touchdowns (77) and total touchdowns (83).
Ball has his fair share of supporters who are preaching patience for the young running back. These super fans have brandished excuses like swords when an honest discussion about Ball arises.
First, some say Ball struggles because he can’t get in a rhythm working in a running back committee with two other backs. That may be true, but other rookie backs like Giovani Bernard (Bengals) or Andre Ellington (Cardinals) split time yet still find a way to make impact plays consistently.
Second, supporters insist it will just take time for Ball to get used to the speed at the pro level. Per Mike Klis of the Denver Post, the team still believes Ball can become a top-tier back. Also according to Klis, the Broncos didn’t feel Ball would be hitting his stride until the Week 5-Week 8 range.
This seems odd given the fact that some compared Ball to Broncos legend Terrell Davis after the draft. Davis didn’t take any time to get going as a pro. In fact, Davis rushed for more than 100 yards three times during his rookie season, and he had 384 yards rushing with four touchdowns after his first six games as a pro. Fans will remember that Davis was a sixth-round steal in the 1995 NFL draft.
Most scouts I talk to believe running back is the easiest position to make the transition from college to the pros. It’s an instinctive position which doesn’t require a lot of nuance.
Packers rookie running back Johnathan Franklin, a 2013 fourth-round pick from UCLA, rushed for more than 100 yards in Week 3 against the Bengals. It was Franklin’s first start of his pro career and the first time he received any touches in a game.
Next, Ball supporters go back to pointing out his nose for the end zone. Yes, he finished his college career with more touchdowns than any other player in college football history. That alone does not guarantee pro success.
His 77 rushing touchdowns in college surpassed the 73 rushing touchdowns that Travis Prentice compiled during his time at Miami (OH). Prentice was a bust as a pro. He played two seasons in the NFL for two different teams, scoring only nine touchdowns during that brief time.
Ball has played in six games so far as a pro but has not found pay dirt. By comparison, Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell scored two rushing touchdowns in the first game he played.
Enough of the excuses. Let’s look at the pro tape to see what Ball needs to improve on.
The Pro Tape
Ball has only played 90 snaps this season and only 13 snaps over the last two games. This is out of a possible 460 snaps for the Broncos offense.
So far, he has compiled 43 rushing attempts for 139 yards, an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Ball has two lost fumbles to his credit. Those have certainly limited his playing time with the Broncos.
Ball has also been targeted four times this year, hauling in two of those passes for 27 yards. The other two passes were bad drops this last week in the Jaguars game.
I went back and watched every snap Ball has had as a pro. One thing is clear: He’s trying to do too much.
In the picture below, we see Ball try to bounce a run outside against the Ravens. It’s a 3rd-and-1 inside the 10-yard line, and Ball picks up four yards.
He tried to make it to the pylon but doesn’t have the speed to do that at the pro level. Over the last two years, 37 percent of his rushes went outside the tackles at Wisconsin, and he averaged 7.0 yards per carry outside the tackles during that time. In order to be an effective pro back, he’ll need to realize that bouncing runs outside won’t work that frequently in the pros.
This next picture shows Ball hesitating as the Broncos want to grind down the clock against the Giants in the fourth quarter. A hole was there for Ball to run through for a considerable gain. His slight hesitation causes that hole to close quickly, and Ball picks up three yards.
Here’s another fourth-quarter carry for Ball, this time against the Ravens. The team wants to move the chains, but Ball hesitates when the hole isn’t huge. A back like Knowshon Moreno could have easily lowered his head and plunged forward for the first down. Ball stops his feet, and the Ravens close in quickly. The result of the play is a two-yard loss, forcing the Broncos to punt on the next play.
This hesitation is a big reason why Ball is not being more successful as a pro back. He needs to calm his mind and maintain better patience as a runner. When a hole is not blocked, Ball needs to grind and take what a defense is willing to give.
Ball has made a couple of decent runs as a pro, but looking further at those carries, it becomes clear why.
Below we see arguably the best run of Ball’s pro career. It’s a nine-yard gain against the Ravens where he kept his balance after contact. Ball essentially runs into the back of the line, keeps his feet and finds a large hole at the second level. Credit goes to Ball for staying upright and noticing where the soft spot was. He needs more determined and intent runs if he wants to play up to his potential as a pro.
This next play shows a huge hole open up for Ball on the left side of the line. The result of the play against the Raiders is a 12-yard gain.
In Week 6 against the Jaguars, Ball finished the game with three carries for 15 yards. That’s a healthy 5.0 yards per carry, but the entire 15 yards came on one play. Below is the play, and we again see a huge hole for Ball to run through.
Plays are rarely blocked like this in the pros. Star running backs can create their own space when a hole isn’t there. This has been a problem for Ball so far as a pro.
Ball security and pass protection are two more areas the rookie needs to work on in order to get more playing time with the Broncos. His two lost fumbles this year were a surprise for a player who only fumbled five times in four years of college football.
Protecting Peyton Manning is priority No. 1 for the Broncos. Ball has made strides as a pass protector, and he needs to continue doing so if he’s going to earn a larger role.
Ball has really impressed me during his time with the Broncos as a receiver out of the backfield. He usually catches passes cleanly, and he knows how to work in open space. Those two drops against Jacksonville were not like him, and it’s an area that he should be able to clean up quickly going forward.
The 2013 NFL draft had a poor running back class. For the first time in 30 years, there were no running backs selected in the first round.
Before the draft, I had Ball rated as the ninth-best back in this class. He was productive, consistent and a good receiver out of the backfield. However, his game lacked the “wow” factor, and I questioned whether or not he had the speed and burst to be an effective pro.
I’ve seen Ball at rookie minicamp, offseason training activities, training camp, the preseason and now six regular season games with the Broncos. He has yet to “wow” me as a pro.
Montee Ball still has the trust of the coaching staff, and that’s a big reason why he’ll continue to get opportunities to prove himself.
Ball is a great kid with a strong work ethic. If he fails at the pro level, it won't be due to lack of effort.
Patience is necessary when considering whether or not Ball can be a long-term answer for the Broncos at the running back position. So far, we haven’t seen much from the rookie, but his draft status and college pedigree will continue to give him chances to turn things around.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.