This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NFLRankings or the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more 2014 Fantasy Football Rankings visit Fantasy Football Overdose, a fantasy football blog.
Montee Ball was a huge fantasy football sleeper as a rookie in 2013. He only had the injury-prone Knowshon Moreno to battle for serious snaps at running back in his first season, making him a near-lock for huge fantasy production.
Instead of winning the job in the preseason, he bowed out and Moreno took over. Moreno went on to produce 1,600+ yardage season with 11 total scores as a part of a historic Denver Broncos offensive attack.
Ball was a serviceable Flex option at times, but was an inconsistent performer both in role and production thanks to fundamental issues early on. Ball’s biggest struggles came in pass protection and pass-catching, making him a huge liability as Denver’s main third down option.
Fast forward to June, and Ball is suddenly Denver’s lead back and Moreno is a Dolphin. With Ball seemingly erasing his major flaws with solid execution down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs, he set himself up for a mammoth load in Denver’s offense in 2014.
But what does that exactly mean? Does it mean he’s just going to come in and put up Moreno’s numbers? What exactly can we expect out of the second-year back, and is he worth the first round pick it’s currently costing to land him?
Let’s break Ball down from all angles and asses his fantasy value for the 2014 fantasy football season:
The most important thing about Ball is that he’s a superior talent to Moreno. He’s a well-built back with good size and power, making him an above average force up the middle of the line. He’s adept at converting in short-yardage situations and was an absolute fiend at the goal-line at the college level. He also has an underrated burst and a nice wiggle with fluid hips, giving him a shot at eluding defenders in the open field.
He’s mostly a down-hill runner who excels at hitting holes and uses his excellent vision and timing to get more than what the initial block gets him. He’s not really an elite talent, but he’s an upgrade over Moreno and has the physical tools to be a very solid starting running back. His skill-set and potential rises up even more given his offense and the fact that defenses have to pay way more attention to Peyton Manning and the passing game.
His downside is still in pass protection, catching and ball security. Ball lost three lost fumbles as a rookie last year, with two coming in the first three games. He’s going to be better in that area, but three fumbles on just 139 total touches isn’t really a good omen. That is something that could still be a problem. His pass protection isn’t really an issue anymore, while his pass-catching has gotten more consistent and to the point where he’s not a liability.
As long as he can take care of the football with a much bigger role, Ball looks equipped to handle the duties of a three-down feature back.
Ball isn’t going to face the same type of competition Moreno did last year. Ball still had a very good amount of touches behind Moreno as the change of pace option, but neither Ronnie Hillman or C.J. Anderson scream “get him on the field”. Anderson is a marginal talent and Hillman has been woefully inconsistent. Neither back has the makings of a true feature back, either, so it’d take a mammoth-sized face-plant for Ball to lose his hold on the starting gig.
In the passing game, Eric Decker is gone, but otherwise the other side of the offense should be as good as ever. It might actually be even better, as raw tight end Julius Thomas should only improve, while the Broncos added extra versatility and explosiveness with Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Moreno takes 60 receptions with him, too, opening the door to a lot of action out of the backfield for Ball as a receiver. Hillman and/or Anderson will cut into that to a certain degree, but if Ball continues like he has been, he shouldn’t lose much time on third downs.
The potential for Ball in this offense absolutely puts him at a first round value. If Moreno, the more marginal talent, could put up the great numbers he did and finish as a top-five producer at the position, Ball surely can, too.
It’s a big if, still, and that’s the problem. If Ball turns into a Stevan Ridley all of a sudden and Denver can’t trust him, there goes your first round pick. He also could struggle in other facets, or defenses could key in on the ground game more than they did last year. It’s also possible the Broncos see a dip in overall offensive production in general, which could clearly negatively impact Ball’s fantasy upside.
There’s also the possibility he’s not used as much as Moreno on third downs as a receiver, and it’s also possible Denver is forced to or chooses to pass more inside the red-zone than they did a year ago. The flat transition of Moreno’s stats to Ball’s stats isn’t an exact science, so projecting them the same way might be a tad presumptuous.
There is some minor risk involved and the first round always is going to feel like a reach for a guy entering his first season as an unproven starter. But right now it’s the 12th pick of standard 12-team leagues and that’s the price you need to pay to get him. If you believe he’ll be as good as Moreno or better, he’s worth the pick. In fact, if that’s going to be the case, you might be okay with taking him even earlier. I’d personally prefer to snag him in round two, but 12th in round one is pretty much the same thing. One way or another, he’s headed for elite RB1 value if all goes well, and you’re not going to be sad you drafted him.