Fantasy Film Study: Is Montee Ball a first-round pick?

Every offseason, the fantasy community inevitably rallies around an up-and-coming player, making him the belle of the fantasy ball. Last year, it was Lamar Miller, the fantasy darling who rocketed up draft boards all offseason before torpedoing countless fantasy championship dreams in the regular season. This year, the name being shouted from fantasy pulpits across the nation is Montee Ball. Heck, we even had an instant debate on our site this week to discuss whether or not Ball was worthy of a first-round draft pick (I argued against that notion). What fantasy pundits say is one thing, but when it comes from the mouth of Peyton Manning himself, it's time to take notice. "Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said before delivering the keynote address at the Boy Scouts of America's 38th Annual Sports Breakfast in Denver on Wednesday. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload, and I look forward to having a full offseason with him." Translation: This kid has the ability to deliver, and I'm going to make sure he does. The Montee Ball hype machine is in over-drive already, and it's not even May.

Before the hype got out of control, I wanted to dive into Ball's tape from last season using GameRewind to see if he showed enough in his rookie season to merit all of this hoopla. By the way, that link is to a free five-day trial, so stop reading for two minutes and go sign up! Done? Good. Let's get to it.

Opportunity knocks

Let's take a moment to examine Ball's cushy situation for 2014. Knowshon Moreno is now swimming with the fishes (he signed with the Miami Dolphins). The Broncos' best offensive lineman returns from injury in Ryan Clady, while Zane Beadles has left for Jacksonville. Beadles was the poorest graded Broncos lineman per Pro Football Focus, and he'll be replaced by Ben Garland, a converted defensive tackle, or Orlando Franklin, who would slide in from his right tackle position and be replaced by Chris Clark (who performed admirably in place of Clady last year). Lastly, Ball is getting handoffs from Peyton Manning, who has a long track record of thinning out defenses to pave the way for productive rushing attacks. Teams need to respect Manning's passing ability, and because of this they roll out more nickel and dime packages to help limit Denver's explosive aerial attack. Adam Levitan over at Rotoworld also explored the mystery of Montee Ball, and churned out some hearty statistics on the types of defensive fronts the Broncos ran the ball against last year. "The Broncos ran against dime packages a league-leading 15 percent of the time and were against nickel defenses 62 percent of the time (third-most in the league)," Levitan wrote. Call this the Peyton Manning effect.

Below, in the Week 8 game against the Washington Redskins, we see the defense come out in its 3-4 nickel package (two lineman, four linebackers, five defensive backs). Reading this, Manning audibles to a run play. Ball takes the handoff and is able to burst through the line of scrimmage, hardly being touched before he’s several yards downfield.

You can control the playback of the GIF below by hovering over it with your mouse cursor.

Fantasy impact: Ball is now the bell-cow in the Broncos backfield, and will have every opportunity to put together a dominant fantasy season. He has entered the perfect storm of opportunity as the top back in Denver, running behind a stout offensive line and playing alongside Manning. It'll be up to him if he emerges as a fantasy superstar or not, but he'll have plenty of advantageous looks like the one above to exploit next season.

Rushing to conclusions

Montee Ball can run the football. Anyone who watched even a second of his collegiate career knows that. He racked up a total of almost 4,000 rushing yards between his junior and senior years at Wisconsin, owns the NCAA record for career touchdowns with 83, and tied Barry Sanders for the NCAA single-season record with 39 touchdowns in 2011. So what happened when he entered the NFL last season? More of the same.

Ball isn't the quickest, shiftiest or lightest back on the feet. But he packs a gargantuan punch in his 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame. His powerful piston-like legs allow him to break tackles and move piles with the best of them. Ball averaged 2.6 yards after contact per attempt in 2013, the second-highest among rookie running backs (Andre Ellington boasted a 3.2 average) and 10th-highest total among all running backs. He earned those extra yards the hard way, too.

Take a look at this run from Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders. Ball is hit hard in the hole by Nick Roach, but bounces off that tackle, lowers his shoulders and grinds out a 7-yard gain.

All of these runs and extra yards add up to a fair amount of fantasy points that would otherwise be left on the field. In addition, when Ball gets a bigger crease to break tackles, he can gouge defenses for longer runs, like the below 45-yard scamper against the Kansas City Chiefs (Ball's longest run of the season). Ball breaks a Derrick Johnson tackle at the line, and thunders through the rest of the Chiefs defense before being brought down near the 50-yard line.

While this run is impressive, the downside is it shows Ball's lack of game-breaking speed. Ball is never going to run away from anyone in the NFL. His lateral agility is also average, meaning he has a hard time getting to the corner on stretch runs or juking players in the open field. But all of this is fine, because that has never been Ball's running style and he's still found success.

Fantasy impact: Ball is a traditional power back, who makes his hay grinding out yardage and running into defenders, not away from them. He has a nose for the end zone, but he has to be close to find it. His four rushing touchdowns as a rookie came from four, one, five and eight yards out. With Manning under center, Ball will be given plenty of opportunities to score. It wouldn't be shocking to see him match or exceed Knowshon Moreno's 10 rushing touchdowns from 2013 now that the backfield is his.

Catching on

In 2013, Manning targeted his running backs on 115 pass attempts, with 74 of those going in the direction of Moreno. Ball's presence in the passing game figures to rise as he improved as pass-blocker greatly from his embarassing showing early in the season. While watching the tape, Ball proved a capable receiver, but didn't flash great route-running out of the backfield. That will improve over time, but there's reason to believe Ball can add a new element to his game that was missing in college where he only had 59 career receptions.

Here, in Week 14 against the Tennessee Titans, Ball runs one of his better routes while lining up out wide, burning linebacker Colin McCarthy to get wide open.

There was only one problem. Ball came down with a case of stone hands.

He did however, snag an impressive catch with a cornerback draped all over him later in the same game. Ball's catch percentage of 74.1 was 31st among running backs with at least 20 targets, so he has some work to do. However, given the number of passes that will be coming his way, Ball could easily triple his 20 receptions from last year in 2014.

Fantasy impact: Once again, the biggest draw for Ball's fantasy potential is the opportunity around him. The Broncos throw the football -- a lot. Ball will get his targets, and after another full offseason of working with Manning and improving his route running and timing, he could become an annual 50-plus catch running back, increasing his fantasy potential even more.

Conclusion

Having spent the last few days watching Montee Ball's NFL tape, it's tough to not get excited about his fantasy potential in 2014. Ball has oodles of ability to go alongside what is probably the best situation for a young running back in the NFL. He's rushing behind a top-notch offensive line and taking his cues from one of the best football minds in the world in Peyton Manning. Plus, he's capable of doing stuff like this.

Still, I can't quite get behind Ball as a first-round fantasy draft pick just yet. His short NFL track record and lack of game-breaking speed concern me to the point where I'd rather take a more proven commodity like Calvin Johnson at the end of the first round than Ball, and wait on guys like Andre Ellington or Giovani Bernard a round or two later. I love Ball's potential, but just can't muster the courage to ask him out that early in fantasy drafts. Which is why I'll likely be watching from the side of the gymnasium as someone else dances with this year's belle of the fantasy ball. I just hope I'm right and can find another beauty in the later rounds so I'm not left dancing awkwardly by myself.

- Alex writes fantasy and features pieces for NFL.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar for more fantasy insight and his highly anticipated 1980s power ballad rankings.

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