Breaking down Peyton Manning's running backs

You might have noticed, but there's been a lot of talk about Montee Ball recently. Michael Fabiano proclaimed the Broncos' new lead back to be worthy of a first-round draft pick -- a topic that we debated later in the week.

Then Peyton Manning weighed in, declaring that Ball was ready to fill in for the departed Knowshon Moreno. Of course, never being one to take anyone at their word -- even Peyton Manning -- our own Alex Gelhar took a look at some Montee Ballgame tape. He even included some fancy new user-controlled gifs ... give 'em a try!

Of course, Going Deep couldn't be left out of the fun. Much of the hype surrounding Ball has had to do with the attention defenses must pay to his quarterback. So we wondered how well fantasy running backs have done playing alongside Peyton Manning, and set a standard for what Ball would need to achieve in 2014.

Over the course of Manning's 15 seasons in the league, lining up behind him has been a pretty good gig. In 10 of those seasons, Manning's top rusher has finished among the top 10 fantasy scorers at his position.

It's worth noting one caveat in that list. In 2001, Edgerrin James tore his ACL six games into the season, leaving the Colts scrambling in the backfield. It's not unreasonable to think he could have been a top 10 option in '01 and again in '02 when he was trying to regain his previous form. Even so, the track record is pretty good.

Looking a little deeper, you'll find six instances in which one of Peyton's running backs finished in the top five at his position. That's where you start getting into the realm of players who seem certain to universally land in the first round of fantasy drafts.

There are a few immediate similarities between these five seasons; each season featured a 1,000-yard rusher who ran for at least 10 touchdowns. Generally speaking, those backs also did a good job protecting the football. It's also telling that the overall fantasy production has dipped as the years have progressed, although that's more a function of the diminished returns from NFL running backs as opposed to an indictment of any one player.

But if you dig further into the seasons individually, you start to come up with a few more benchmarks that you can keep in mind on draft day when you're faced with the Montee Ball dilemma near the end of your first round.

Age

One consistency is that Peyton Manning generally has worked with running backs who were early in their careers. Nearly every running back Manning has teamed with was in his third season or earlier in their first campaign together. The only exceptions were Marshall Faulk (fifth season) and Willis McGahee (ninth season). Even still, Faulk was just 25 during his 1998 campaign. That's a key number. The average age of players in those six seasons was 24.2 years old. James was the "old man" of the group, clocking in at 27 in 2005. It means those backs were on the uphill side of their careers. That's a nice thing for both a quarterback and offensive coordinator.

Opportunity

It goes without saying that the more chances a back gets to touch the football, the more chances that running back has to post fantasy points. The floor for rushers to reach the top five under Peyton Manning has been 300. Both Joseph Addai (302 -- 2007) and Knowshon Moreno (301 -- 2013) just barely eclipsed the mark. This could be a tall order for Ball (or any running back) in 2014. Last season, just eight different running backs had 300 or more total touches, including Moreno. It means you need a running back who will be on the field for 16 games. It also means those backs had to be efficient with the chances they received. Speaking of which...

Efficiency

With running backs seeing fewer opportunities, fantasy owners need them to make the most of their touches. On average, the five seasons in which a Manning back finished in the top five, that running back scored 0.73 fantasy points per touch. No surprisingly, Addai (0.77) and Moreno (0.79) were on the top end of that scale. Just for comparison's sake, Ball averaged 0.63 points per touch last season. Interestingly in 2005, Edgerrin James finished the year with a 0.66 point-per-touch average ... but he also saw more than 400 touches that season. Ball isn't likely to come close to that workload.

One of those three categories squarely is in Montee Ball's favor heading toward the 2014 season -- he won't turn 24 until late in the season. As for opportunities ... things seem to slant in his favor, but with the decreased emphasis on running backs, getting to 300 touches is not guaranteed. As for efficiency? Well, that's all up to him -- and the defenses he'll face this season.

The debate over whether Ball is worth a first-round pick likely is to rage all summer long. At least you can now have the numbers to help you make a confident decision. Cue the rainbow star!

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a guy who still thanks Edgerrin James for 1998. Follow him on Twitter.

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