Denver Broncos Rookie Montee Ball Faces Stiff Statistical Headwinds

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 17, 2013



By Justin Henry (@wrestlecrapjrh)
Knits custom gloves for Chuck Bednarik

"His running style is a lot like Terrell Davis. Obviously that got us real excited. Hopefully he'll have a longer career than Terrell had. We think we found a gem in Montee."

- John Elway, May 7, 2013

If the Denver Broncos were a social media site, 'Montee Ball' would be their top trending phrase. His name is heard more these days than that of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, and more than incoming star receiver Wes Welker.

The fifty-eighth overall selection of the 2013 NFL Draft drew the above analogy from Davis' teammate on Denver's two Super Bowl -winning teams.

The unique talents of "TD" helped prevent Elway from forever being labeled a Super Bowl washout like fellow legends Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton.

In other words, when Elway plays the "Terrell Davis Card" for an upstart talent, he's suspending himself off of a limb with such an endorsement. After all, Davis would have been a surefire Hall of Famer, had it not been for lingering injuries that cut his career short.

But Elway isn't making some outlandish platitude. When one watched Montee Ball run for the Wisconsin Badgers, they saw shades of Davis in his play.

The inside running, quick exploitation of narrow gaps, on-field patience and IQ, and cutting ability draw a favorable harkening back to Davis' awe-inspiring abilities fifteen years ago.

The Elway-Manning comparison is palpable. On paper, the Davis-Ball comparison is as well.

It hasn't taken long for Ball to become that trending phrase in the Mile High City either. The rookie received an increasing load of first-team reps at Denver OTAs, and rendered injury-addled veteran Willis McGahee obsolete; the team released McGahee Thursday.

Fantasy experts are as high on Ball as Elway is. NFL.com lists Ball 47th overall in player rankings (25th in running backs). ESPN.com is a little more liberal with their outlook; they have Ball 37th overall, and 19th among backs.

NFL.com projects the rookie to run for 1058 yards and eight touchdowns. ESPN, meanwhile, projects Ball to put up 1088 yards, and agrees with the eight scores on the ground.

And here I ask, is that faith justified?

That isn't say Ball, as a *player* isn't worth the faith. I'm asking because Ball will be in the backfield of Peyton Manning. And judging by statistics, let's just say it may be out of the realm of expectation for Ball to be a fantasy stud in this environment.

Here, I will outline the obstacles that could prevent Ball from meeting the benchmarks of hype and hoopla that he currently receives, exclusively from a fantasy perspective.

1. Manning's top Running Backs Rarely Carry the Ball

Here's a look the number of attempts by the leading rusher on Peyton Manning's teams each of the past 10 seasons.

 2002200320042005200620072008200920102012
Run Att. Per Game (top RB)19.823.820.924.014.117.412.914.69.916.7
League Rank131372251134183826

From 2002-05, Manning's top back was regular Pro Bowler Edgerrin James. It was expected that James would enjoy a sizable slice of the pie, given his status as one of the best backs in the game next to LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander in that era.

The rest of the chart is represented, in order, by Joseph Addai (2006-09), Donald Brown (2010), and  McGahee (2012). Addai has had his moments, but none of these three are flirting with a possible Hall of Fame bid like James, he of over 12,000 yards and 80 touchdowns. So it makes sense, in that regard, for Manning to take on more of the workload.

Addai did run for over 1000 yards in his first two seasons (1081 and 1072 in 2006 and 2007, respectively), but 2007 was the last season that Manning had a 1000-yard rusher.

For a comparison, let's look at Manning's pass attempts over the same period.

 2002200320042005200620072008200920102012
Pass Att. Per Game36.935.431.128.334.832.234.735.742.436.4
League Rank in Att AVG428134105217

No wonder Manning needed four surgeries on his neck through 2011; he threw four times as many passes as his leading rusher had running attempts. If I was carrying that much of the workload, my spine would be shredded like secret government documents too.

Truthfully, Manning's been mostly consistent throughout this stretch, save for James nearly equalling him in tries in 2005, their last season together. Post-Edge is different story. If Denver was a binge drinking session, Addai, Brown, and McGahee were just quick, necessary pukes between the throws/chugs of their quarterback.

Besides, Manning proved he could go to two Super Bowls with Addai and Brown as his best backs. He never did make it with James. Manning knows full well you don't need a tremendous back to get there (which is why Antowain Smith has two rings and Adrian Peterson has none).

And don't forget the 2009 rule changes that neutered defensive backs and linebackers, restricting hits on 'defenseless' receivers. The passing game across the league has seen great increases. A cerebral quarterback like Manning saw windows opening, and that explains why he hasn't averaged below thirty-five attempts per game since.

2. Manning Is Less Likely to Dump Off to Running Backs than Other QBs

Here's a look at Manning's leading receiver among running backs going back to 2002, and where they ranked on the team in receptions

 2002200320042005200620072008200920102012
RB Leader in RecJamesJamesJamesJamesAddaiAddaiRhodesAddaiBrownMcGahee
Receptions61515144404145512026
Rank on Team2343335476

Geez, what a dropoff. Manning's more likely to favor that downfield one-on-one, knowing the defender has less freedom. In other words, unless those 2009 rule changes get stricken from the books, Ball's not an ideal choice for a PPR league.

In 2010, leading receiving back Brown was outcaught by Austin Collie (who played in nine games) and return man Blair White. Last season, three receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and 94-year-old Brandon Stokley) and two tight ends (Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme) all caught more passes than lead-back McGahee.

Not only is Manning embracing those two-tight end sets that every team is ripping off of New England and Green Bay, but if he has three highly-capable receivers, they vie for his attention more than maybe Ball could. The three wideouts combined for 224 receptions in 2012, 56 percent of Manning's completions.

And that just might increase in 2013.

3. Wes Freakin' Welker.

In 2004, Manning became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to have three 1000-yard receivers on the same team. Reggie Wayne had 1210, Marvin Harrison posted 1113, and a somewhat-younger Stokley added 1077.

Kurt Warner became the fifth QB to preside over this feat, doing so in 2008 with the Cardinals. But Manning might just become the first quarterback to pull it off twice.

Thomas had 1434 yards a season ago, and Decker complimented that with 1064 yards.

The March 13 signing of Wes Welker gives Manning a receiver with a tremendous intangible. It used to be Reggie Wayne's near-inability to drop passes was Peyton's best friend. Now, it's Welker's yards-after-catch.

In 2008, Welker averaged 6.8 YAC, thus helping make Matt Cassel look attractive to the short-sighted Chiefs. Welker's career average is 5.8 YAC. At age 31 last season, he still played above that average, putting up a mean of 6.1 YAC. He also totalled 1354 yards, amazingly the second-highest total of his career.

The temptation will be far too great for Manning.

With Thomas down the field, and Decker slaloming in and out with his sideline-to-sideline speed, the poor slot man is going to have to cover Welker. And there's nary a slot man in the league that can adequately stop him from moving the chains.

If the defense brings up the safety, that's a better chance for Thomas and Decker to draw one on one. A safety playing in also allows Dreessen and Tamme to get downfield, and likely open.

Granted, having the safety(ies) in could make Ball effective in a dump off to the outside, with the line of scrimmage bunched. Then again, with that receiver triumvirate, Manning may simply be having too much fun to worry about the run.

So in conclusion, if Montee Ball doesn't live up to fantasy expectations in 2013, don't blame him, for it'll likely not be his fault.

In today's pass-happy NFL, with the receiving corps and experience Manning has, even he may find it onerous to hand off to his back, even if it was Terrell Davis.


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