montee-ball-again2

Remember when I gave Montee Ball the Alfred Morris circa 2013 distinction, and then I ducked the flying lettuce? Good times.

Associating the production of one player with the production of another is just a way to maybe make people angry, or just to get you thinking. I’m not sure if I achieved either of those goals, but here we are. The true purpose was this: there’s a really, really good chance that a year from now we’ll be able to look back on Montee Ball’s season, and easily see that he was the most productive rookie running back.

Since then, the kind words regarding Ball have piled up, with John Elway saying that the former Wisconsin stud reminds him of a certain other running back he handed the ball off to on occasion. And now we have another fun quote hinting strongly at high-level rookie production from a guy who had 4,131 all-purpose yards and 61 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons (!!!!!!!!!!1).

This time, it comes to us by way of the current quarterback who’s set to hand Ball the, um, Ball (see what I did there?). He’s Peyton Manning, and you may know him.

Manning told USA Today that throughout OTAs the preparation with Ball has been heavy, and there’s a pretty good reason for that:

“We’re just kind of going through plays, going through games, getting him comfortable hearing audibles at the line of scrimmage. Because we are going to count on him in a big way this year,” Manning said. “He’s a rookie, but coach (John) Fox isn’t going to bring him along slowly.”

Both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno haven’t participated in any offseason workouts yet because of knee injuries. For McGahee that’s especially concerning, because he’s 31 years old. Running backs of that vintage who have a second-round pick also on the depth chart at their position can see the scribbles somewhere on a wall, and they’re mostly written in crimson. Cold, dark crimson.

The Broncos will surely give McGahee time, but it wouldn’t be shocking whatsoever to see him become a cap casualty near the end of training camp. Ball will likely ascend to become the starter regardless, but McGahee’s presence will at least slightly impede that ascension, with McGahee getting more early-season carries before John Fox fully admits that he’s beginning to decay. This past season, McGahee had a yards per carry average of 4.0 or less in six of his 10 games. His burst is fading.

When Ball claims his throne and Ronnie Hillman is then utilized as the ideal change-of-pace and, more importantly, pass-catching back, the rook will go boom. Ball had a more pedestrian 40-yard dash time of 4.66 during the Scouting Combine, but when you’re as compact and powerful as he is (stands 5’10, weighs 214 pounds) that’s of a lesser concern. Ball’s game is strong, straight line pounding, which is why Hillman will fit perfectly alongside him in a secondary role.

Le’Veon Bell may also have a productive season as the only other rookie running back likely set to start right away, but with the addition of Wes Welker in Denver, Ball is in a deeper and much more dynamic offense. He’s currently coming off the board at about 38th overall, which is an already escalating price even before he’s definitively given the starting job and McGahee fades away. That price will continue to climb throughout the summer too, so you’ll have to buy high. But it’ll be worth it, because Ball will be powered by both Alex Gibbs’ highly effective zone-blocking scheme, and the presence of Manning which led to Moreno seeing eight men in the box on just 7.4 percent of his 138 carries in 2012.

It may take some patience early if he has to work past McGahee or share some carries, but eventually, Bell will do a whole lot of rumbling.