Why Ball is on the list
There's no piece of real estate more coveted for an NFL running back than the spot directly behind Peyton Manning. The Broncos quarterback is a force of nature, and his ability to diagnose defenses in real time puts his running backs in great position to succeed.
After a season playing behind Knowshon Moreno, Ball now gets his opportunity as the Broncos' top backfield option. Ball came on strong in Denver's final six regular season games, compiling 337 yards on 52 carries (6.48 yards per carry) and adding 15 catches for 102 yards. This is a powerful downhill runner who showed the ability to thrive as a rusher, receiver and blocker -- all qualifications in a Manning offense.
Ball showed undeniable growth as the season progressed, but it should be noted that the first half of his rookie year was not pretty. Through Week 8, Ball had 55 rushes for 177 yards (3.2 YPC) and one touchdown. He lost two fumbles in his first three games, leading to a disappearance from the team's game plan in Weeks 4 and 5.
Ball said the turning point came when he learned to properly anticipate Manning's pre-snap audibles. Manning often checks into a pass play that requires his running back to pick up a blitzer. When Ball got the hang of Manning's machinations, his fortunes changed.
"I started playing better then," Ball told The Denver Post in May. "I wish that it had happened earlier. I always tell myself, imagine what it would have been like had I begun like this."
After watching tape of every one of Ball's touches, we're not yet sold on his receiving abilities. Ball dealt with some drops, though he cleaned up that part of his game as the season progressed.
Moreno's absence should give Ball some peace of mind if he gets off to another slow start. Ronnie Hillman is the next man up if the starter falters.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said Ball was the Broncos player who made the biggest strides over the course of the 2013 season. Gase calls Ball a "full package" who can run, receive and block.
Manning's presence will create plenty of nickel and dime looks for Ball, who should see fewer eight-in-the-box looks than any running back in football. Denver's offensive line should also be improved, with the return of star left tackle Ryan Clady -- who missed most of last season with a Lisfranc injury -- creating a positive domino effect on the rest of the line.
Add it all up and Ball is set up to deliver Pro Bowl-level production -- 300 total touches, 1,300 rushing yards, 50 receptions and 10 TDs are all feasible benchmarks. Life in Peyton's posse creates a golden opportunity.