In a perfect world, the Broncos would name Montee Ball their starting RB tomorrow, give him all the starter’s reps in training camp and preseason and then feed him 300+ touches this year.
But that’s not how it works in the NFL. Ball is an unproven rookie. The coaching staff is going to make him earn his role. He ran behind Ronnie Hillman all spring and has stayed there through the first week of training camp.
Still, Ball remains the best bet to lead this Broncos backfield in carries this season. He’s a well-built 5-10, 217-pounder. Ball proved capable of a workhorse role at Wisconsin, carrying 307 and 356 times, respectively, in his final 2 seasons. He led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards in 2011 and went for 1,830 this past year. Ball set NCAA records with 77 career rushing TDs and 83 total TDs. He also totaled 59 catches across four seasons.
This is a well-rounded player with all the makings of an NFL feature back. Hillman, meanwhile, looks more like a change of pace. He’s packed on 15 pounds this offseason but still goes just 5-10 and 195 — 22 pounds lighter than Ball. He mustered just 3.9 yards per carry in his 2012 rookie campaign, struggling to run between the tackles.
We can’t completely count Hillman out in the race for Denver’s starting RB job. He’s obviously doing something right to have hung on to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart all offseason. He’s reportedly improved in pass protection, his biggest shortcoming last year.
Fantasy football is a forward-thinking, projection-based business, though. Just because Hillman is running with the 1s doesn’t mean he’ll stay there all season. And it certainly doesn’t mean he should be the first Broncos RB drafted.
Ball will “eventually” be the Broncos lead back, says the Denver Post. Fantasy owners should be — and are — drafting that way.
Of course, the question is how soon Ball takes over as the feature runner. If it happens by Week 1, the rookie will boast top-15 fantasy upside. Peyton Manning-led offenses have regularly produced fantasy stars at RB. In Manning’s 12 seasons in Indy, the Colts had 9 top-11 RBs. Willis McGahee was sitting 14th in fantasy points through 10 weeks last year before a leg injury ended his season.
But what if Ball opens the season in a timeshare? Maybe he splits early-down work with Hillman, with Knowshon Moreno also seeing action in passing situations. That’d leave Ball as just a RB3 or flex option. If he’s unable to capture a feature role all year, he’d have trouble cracking the top 30 among RBs. And he could finish anywhere between RB30 and RB10 if he takes over lead duties at some point during the season.
At this point, Ball’s potential 2013 fantasy output spans a wide range. That makes him a risk/reward pick in drafts, especially early-August drafts.
Ball’s current 12-team ADP of 4.05 seems fair. He’s the 24th RB off the board in average drafts. If he wins the Week 1 starting job, he’ll prove a bargain at that price. If he’s stuck in a timeshare all year, Ball will end up overvalued. Whether you roll the dice on him in the 4th round should depend on the makeup of your roster. If you’ve already locked up a couple of reliable RBs, you can afford to gamble on Ball. If you’re still looking for your first RB in the 4th, it makes more sense to target a safer option.
This article was written by Jared Smola and provided to Athlon Sports courtesy of DraftSharks.com. Online since 1999, Draft Sharks won the 2010 and 2012 FSTA awards for the most accurate fantasy football projections in the industry.