Montee Ball might not hear his name called on the first day of the 2013 NFL Draft, but he will be an impact running back as a pro.
That's my opinion after watching the Wisconsin star dramatically improve his game over the past year. Ball looks quicker and more explosive than he appeared last season, and he is displaying more toughness and physicality with the ball in his hands.
Now, I know some will wonder how I can suggest that Ball is a better player in 2012 than he was a season ago, considering he nearly rewrote the college football record book during a remarkable junior campaign. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards in 2011 and amassed 39 total touchdowns on the way to finishing fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy last December.
Given those impressive numbers, most expected Ball to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. However, NFL evaluators weren't completely sold on his collegiate résumé and reportedly graded Ball as a third-round prospect when he submitted his paperwork to the NFL Draft Advisory Committee.
I also viewed Ball as a mid-round prospect after watching several of his games last season, including the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game. Although I was impressed with his production and quickness, I had concerns about his balance, body control and burst. I thought Ball lacked the explosiveness and agility to pick up yardage in traffic, and worried about his ability to make nifty runs in tight areas. In addition, I questioned his top-end speed and home-run ability at the next level.
However, after watching Ball carry Wisconsin to a stunning, 70-31 win over Nebraska in Saturday night's Big Ten title game, I believe he has improved various aspects of his game and is worthy of serious consideration as a potential feature back at the NFL level. He possesses the size (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), toughness and skills to handle a heavy workload, and teams will covet his consistent production as a runner. Although he still doesn't boast the home-run speed that some offensive coordinators desire in a No. 1 back, his ability to pick up tough yards when the games is hanging in the balance is more important, in my opinion.
Given some more time to reflect on his performance at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, here are three traits that will make Ball an effective runner as a pro:
1) Vision: Of all of the tools needed to be an effective runner as a pro, the ability to read defenses and spot open creases is the most important. Elite runners consistently find running lanes against aggressive defenses. Inherently, they are able to pick up positive yards whenever they touch the ball. While solid blocking from the offensive line is essential to consistent production, the best runners in football do a great job of anticipating holes and attacking lanes as soon as they appear. In the NFL, creases only stay open for a split second, so a runner must possess the vision and instincts to spot the lane instantly or he will only pick up minimal gains against elite defenses.
In watching Ball against Nebraska, I was impressed with his decisiveness and instincts as a runner. He patiently approached the line of scrimmage after taking the handoff, but immediately accelerated through the hole when the lane opened up. Now, the Badgers' offensive line certainly deserves credit for generating a push at the line, but Ball didn't miss a read the entire night and punished the Huskers' defense for lacking gap discipline. With the majority of his runs initially directed between the tackles, the fact that Ball finished with 202 rushing yards and three touchdowns on only 21 carries is a testament to his exceptional vision and instincts as a runner.
2) Quickness: Most NFL coordinators would tell you that quickness is more important than speed when it comes to running backs. The speed of NFL defenders makes it difficult to break off 80-yard runs consistently, so coaches prefer runners with exceptional quickness and burst over speedsters. Ball falls into the former category with his outstanding stop-start ability. He has the capacity to make hard plants in one direction before quickly re-directing and bursting through a seam in the other direction. Against Nebraska, he repeatedly started a run to one side of the field, but made a quick cut at the line of scrimmage to get to the backside of the defense.
Ball displayed a combination of balance, body control and quickness that I didn't see a year ago when I watched him in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State. His improvement in this area will not only increase his value in the minds of evaluators, but it could make him the ideal runner for coaches who employ zone-based blocking schemes, which require running backs to adhere to a one-cut rule with the ball in their hands (runners are allowed to only make one cut prior to the line of scrimmage to avoid negative runs). Given Ball's combination of vision and quickness, plus his experience running inside and outside zone-running plays at Wisconsin, he should be a perfect fit within that system.
3) Physicality: The best runners in the NFL possess toughness and physicality that enable them to finish runs in a violent manner. They routinely dole out punishment to defenders attempting to make tackles near the sideline or down the field, and their willingness to run through opponents eventually leads to big gains. Against Nebraska, Ball ran with the kind of violence that coaches expect from workhorse runners. He repeatedly lowered his shoulder to overpower defensive backs in the secondary, and fought for every yard that he could gain on each play.
The best example of Ball's toughness came on his 57-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. After taking the handoff and bursting through the second level of the defense, Ball broke to his left and used a brutal stiff arm to overpower the last Husker defender. The force of the stiff arm lifted the defender off his feet; he landed on his back as Ball continued to rumble into the end zone. The run epitomized what coaches want from their runners at every level, but particularly in the NFL when yards are harder to come by.
The running back position has been devalued in recent years with more NFL teams moving toward pass-first game plans, but the workhorse runner is still coveted by most teams across the league. In looking at Ball's size, skills and production, I believe he has the all-around game to thrive as a feature runner in most offensive schemes. Although his apparent lack of home-run speed and limited production in the passing game will prevent him from being regarded as a blue-chip talent on most draft boards across the league, I believe Ball is a potential rookie starter with the ability to upgrade any roster at the position.
My draft grade on Ball: Second round.
WORD ON THE STREET
While attending the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to discuss the overall depth and talent of the 2013 draft class (particularly the seniors) with scouts. Most evaluators told me this draft is deep at the interior offensive line positions (centers and guards) and defensive tackle. An NFC West official said two offensive guards (Alabama's Chance Warmack and North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper) could come off the board within the first 20 selections. At defensive tackle, Utah's Star Lotulelei remains the crown jewel of the class, but Georgia's Jonathan Jenkins, Purdue's Kawann Short and Alabama's Jesse Williams are also garnering consideration as first-round talents.
When I quizzed scouts on the weak points of the draft, they cited quarterback, offensive tackle and cornerback. The quarterback position, in particular, lacks a franchise guy in the mold of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton, but that might not prevent a team from selecting one at the top of the draft. An NFC scout told me, "If you need one, you have to take him high, regardless of what others might think." He pointed to the 2005 NFL Draft that featured Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers as the closest comparison to this year's class. He reminded me that neither guy was regarded as a blue chipper at the time, but both players have turned out to have fruitful careers, particularly Rodgers, who has become one of the NFL's best signal-callers. With that in mind, it wouldn't surprise me to see USC's Matt Barkley and West Virginia's Geno Smith come off the board sooner than expected on draft day.
Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
The ball-hawking safety cemented his status as one of the best center fielders in college football with his standout performance against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game (which Stanford won, 27-24). Reynolds picked off an errant Brett Hundley pass and returned it 80 yards to set up a game-tying score in the second quarter. That was his sixth pick of the season, ranking third nationally. More importantly, it was another display of the awareness and instincts that are difficult to find in deep middle players. With NFL defensive coordinators coveting takeaways at a premium, Reynolds' penchant for picking off passes will make the sophomore an intriguing prospect to watch in the future.
Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
Franklin has been on the radar of scouts across the league due to a stellar senior campaign, but his spectacular performance in the Pac-12 title game will earn the senior rave reviews as a potential change-of-pace weapon at the next level. In rushing for 194 yards and two scores on just 19 carries, Franklin displayed the quickness, burst and balance that scouts look for in diminutive runners. In addition, he flashed the speed to turn the corner against a fast defense, while also showing the vision and body control to make hard cuts across the grain against an overaggressive defense. Franklin impressed scouts with his solid skills as a receiver, hauling in three receptions for 22 yards against the Cardinal. As more NFL offensive coordinators build their respective game plans around the unique skill sets of their best players, Franklin's ability to serve as a third-down back will make him a valuable commodity in draft rooms across the NFL.
Daimion Stafford, S, Nebraska
It's not fair to pin the Huskers' abysmal defensive performance solely on the shoulders of Stafford, but the senior safety certainly didn't have one of his best games Saturday night. He repeatedly missed tackles in space and didn't take the proper angles to the ball to keep the Wisconsin running backs from breaking big gainers on the perimeter. Stafford carried draft grades in the mid- to late-rounds heading into the contest, and his disappointing play in the Big Ten title game will not help his chances of moving up the board prior to draft day.