How Will Montee Ball Fare as a Feature Back for the Denver Broncos?
The Denver Broncos nearly achieved their goal last season, dominating the regular season and reaching the championship, but their hopes metaphorically sailed out of the back of the end zone on the opening snap of Super Bowl XLVIII.
This season, the Broncos have plenty of reason to believe they can put themselves in a similar situation with a bit of a new-look roster. On offense, the team lost Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, who will be replaced by Emmanuel Sanders, rookie Cody Latimer and sophomore Montee Ball. Latimer won't be called upon to handle a workload quite like Ball though, who heads into the season expected to be the team's feature back.
Ball, however, had his fair share of struggles last year, starting with two fumbles in his first three games of the season, one of which was a potentially costly opening-drive gaffe on a first-and-goal inside the New York Giants' 10-yard line in Week 2.
Turnovers are rarely acceptable - even for rookies - but point-swinging mistakes like a lost opportunity for seven points are very costly and result in a big negative swing in Net Expected Points (NEP), which is a metric we use to identify and quantify a player's impact on a game.
Considering that Ball lost two of his three fumbles on rushing attempts, one a few yards from the goal line and one returned by the Oakland Raiders inside the red zone, Ball's overall impact on the Broncos scoring last season, measured by his Rushing NEP, includes a large setback from these mistakes. (In case you're wondering, the Giants converted a field goal, and the Raiders scored on a one-yard touchdown as a result of these two fumbles.)
Adding only four touchdowns to these field-position-altering fumbles suggests that Ball's rushing had, overall, a minimal influence on the Broncos record-breaking 606 regular-season points.
That's fairly accurate.
Ball finished the season with a Rushing NEP of 3.65. But this number by itself doesn't mean much, so let's put it in context.
Ball attempted 119 rushes this season. As a point of reference, Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington attempted 117 rushes, and Miami Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas attempted 109 rushes. Last season, 19 running backs attempted between 100 and 175 rushes, a fairly wide range of usage, sure, but one that provides a decent amount of comparable backs to see how Ball fared with similar-volume rushers.
Ball's Rushing NEP ranked him fifth in the 19-back subset, and well above the average Rushing NEP of the group: -5.20. Ball's Rushing NEP per rush, 0.03, was also fifth best in the group. The average Rushing NEP per rush was -0.04. Even with Ball's costly errors last season, he maintained above average marks in terms of Rushing NEP compared to this group. This suggests that he was surprisingly effective when he wasn't costing his team touchdowns, or granting great field position to the opposition.
Where Ball fares best in this group of relatively-similar-volume backs is his Success Rate. A run is deemed successful if it results in a positive change in NEP, and Ball was successful on 60 of his 119 rushes, good for 50.42% of the time. Only LeGarrette Blount had a higher Success Rate of the subset with 53.59% of his rushes being successful. The average Success Rate from this group of rushers, for comparison, was only 41.89%.
Just to give Ball's season some historical context, from the 2000 season and including the 2013 season, 252 running backs attempted between 100 and 175 rushes. Ball's Rushing NEP (3.65) was 64th-best among them all, placing him just one spot outside the top 25% of the group. (Just a reminder that he was also hovering around the top 25% of the rushers from this season, ranking fifth out of 19 qualified backs.) As for Success Rate, Ball's 50.42% is well above the average of the 252 rushers (41.03%) and ties for 16th-highest among the 252-back subset.
While his 559 rushing yards (37th in the NFL) and four touchdowns (tied for 31st) on 119 carries (41st) don't stand out as incredible numbers (though his 4.7 yards per attempt ranked eighth in the league), Ball stacks up well against other rushers who received somewhat similar rushing attempts and was well above average in Success Rate.
It's easy to note that Ball, who had the luxury of not being a high-volume feature back, benefited from the Bronco offensive line and the threat of Peyton Manning and the Denver receivers.
Ball also is afforded the luxury of not needing to do too much but rather playing his role on the offense, something Moreno did incredibly well last season. If Ball can generate Moreno-like production, the Broncos will have made the right decision.
To see if Ball's metrics show the potential to morph into something resembling Moreno's this season, let's take a look at Moreno's career.
Moreno, who's now with the Dolphins, achieved a career-best Rushing NEP of 17.37, which was third-highest in the league this season among all running backs. Moreno's Rushing NEP tallies in his first four seasons were -14.46, -5.32, -5.60 (a short 37-carry 2011 campaign), and -3.24. Moreno's Rushing NEP Per Rush of 0.07 was a substantial improvement from his career mark of -0.07. Given a featured role in this juggernaut of an offense, Moreno produced the best season of his career by a wide margin, which is great news for Ball.
(While we're on the subject of Moreno, JJ Zachariason took a look at the fantasy impact of Moreno's departure to Miami. Be sure to check it out so you know how to draft accordingly when the time comes and for a more in-depth look at the new Dolphin.)
Ball's opportunity to step into the Moreno role is similarly promising because the team is still largely intact. Given his volume, Ball was surprisingly effective last season and now has a clear path to carries, something with which he's not unfamiliar. In Ball's junior and senior seasons at Wisconsin, he attempted 307 and 356 rushes, respectively, and racked up over 1,800 yards in each season. Manning hasn't been accompanied by a 300-carry back since Edgerrin James in 2005, so Ball shouldn't be expected to break that barrier again, but his durability likely won't be the reason he can't handle the full workload he's given in Denver this season.
The biggest question mark from a production standpoint, then, is Ball's receiving ability. Now, the Broncos aren't devoid of receiving options, but Moreno's departure creates a noticeable void to be filled out of the backfield. Moreno was both more prolific and more effective than Ball, who was below average compared to the 52 running backs who caught at least 16 passes last season (ostensibly one per game).
|Player||Reception NEP||Rec NEP/Tar||Catch Rate||Success Rate|
|Montee Ball||5.76 (40th)||0.21 (T-36th)||74.07% (28th)||70.00% (12th)|
|Knowshon Moreno||47.99 (1st)||0.65 (1st)||81.08% (11th)||75.00% (7th)|
Ball may not yet possess the potential to replace Moreno entirely in the passing game, but he is a capable pass catcher based on his limited volume last season, evidenced by his Success Rate.
Ball's receiving is another good teachable moment for understanding NEP. His receiving numbers, like his rushing, are plagued by his third fumble on the season, which he lost in the Week 12 tilt against the New England Patriots. Ball fumbled after a reception, and the Patriots recovered inside the Bronco 35-yard line. Ball gave away possession on a second-and-six from the Denver 48-yard line, denying his team a good scoring chance and giving the Patriots a great scoring chance. (And just like the Raiders did after Ball's second fumble of the season, the Patriots ran in a touchdown from just one yard out.)
Aside from that glaring turnover, Ball was actually a good receiver. He was successful at earning the Broncos first downs with his receptions, which is as much a result of the Denver offense as it is Ball's receiving ability. Here's how he stacks up against backs with similar amounts of first downs on receptions this season (as well as with Moreno).
|Player||Receptions||First Downs||First Down %|
As you can see, Ball's first down rate was significantly higher than players with similar first down totals in 2013, and it also mirrors Moreno's. This suggests both that the Broncos generate first downs from running back receptions, and that Ball might be able to convert at a similar rate as Moreno. He may not be a dynamite pass catcher like Moreno was, but he was fairly successful on his 20 receptions in the Denver offense.
With such a small amount of volume to help overturn his one costly fumble, Ball's Reception NEP marks suffer greatly, but he achieved first downs and successful catches as often as Moreno did. Whether Ball can continue that trend with 60 receptions instead of 20 will be a critical factor for Denver this season.
Overall, a featured role on a Super Bowl contender is a tall order, but it's not one that Ball should be unable to fill. He's overcome costly turnovers (largely because of his final eight games last year) to achieve above average Rushing NEP marks, a great accomplishment in its own right. He also converted on an above-average number of receptions and picked up first downs with a success rate comparable to Moreno's, a great sign for his soon-to-be big role in the offense.
Even though he was above average compared to similar-volume backs, Ball's Rushing NEP Per Rush (0.03) was a long way from Moreno's (0.07), and he also trailed significantly in Reception NEP per target (0.21) compared to Moreno (0.65).
Denver may take a step back with Ball lined up next to Manning, but all things considered, Ball shows the promise to fit in with this elite offense and justify his feature role.