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The 2013 second-round pick by the Broncos struggled to make an impact early as a rookie, playing behind starting running back Knowshon Moreno and splitting backup duties with Ronnie Hillman.
The former Wisconsin Badger began his rookie season as a tentative runner, opting to dance in the backfield rather than hitting the hole with authority. His lack of aggression led to an average of fewer than six carries a game through the first 12 weeks of 2013.
To be exact, 75 carries led to only 262 yards, averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry.
Ball’s breakout game happened in Week 13 against one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs. Ball posted a career-high 117 yards on just 13 carries.
From that game on, Ball was much more aggressive and productive when he was able to get on the field. In the final eight games of 2013, Ball registered 60 carries and 393 yards, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. ESPN's KC Joyner wrote on Ball's transformation over the second half of his rookie year (subscription required):
A more important upgrade could come via Montee Ball's advancement into a dominant NFL running back. Ball was a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in college but managed to gain only 559 yards in his rookie season.
That total belies how well he adjusted to the pro game as time progressed. In Weeks 1-12, Ball averaged a meager 5.1 yards per carry in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive a ball carrier is when given good blocking.
Ball shifted gears at that point, as his GBYPA shot up to the 8.8-yard level from Weeks 13-17. He also displayed much-improved pass-blocking ability, another aspect that says Ball's comfort level in Year 2 in this offense should make his latter performance level more par for the course. This may give head coach John Fox more confidence to lean on Ball and the Broncos' ground game as a way to help better protect the 38-year-old Manning.
As the playoffs approached, Ball also improved his pass-blocking and began to contribute more as a receiver out of the backfield. His PFF pass-blocking efficiency rating of 90.9 percent was better than star running backs Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and Doug Martin. That’s the type of help quarterback Peyton Manning will need to have if the Broncos' offense is to repeat its prowess from a year ago.
After notching only two receptions through the first nine games of the season, Ball hauled in 23 passes for 133 yards over the final 10 games, including the postseason. With his solid hands, vision and acceleration, Ball is a legitimate receiving option underneath for Manning when downfield targets are covered.
It's that kind of production that allowed Denver to let Moreno walk in free agency.
With Ball entering 2014 as the unquestioned starter, he’s going to have the opportunity to get around the same number of carries (283) that Moreno received last season. Playing behind Peyton Manning means he will face many defensive fronts with six or fewer defenders in the box, which often leads to opportunities to consistently gash the defense for big yardage on the ground.
Ball’s blend of quickness, size and vision will allow him this year to surpass the Moreno's production from 2013.