Who Is Montee Ball's Handcuff?
As far as enviable landing spots for running backs go, standing next to Peyton Manning has to be near the top of the list. Just ask Joseph Addai, Knowshon Moreno, and Edgerrin James. Being Manning’s right-hand man not only produces real-life football results, but more often than not, it produces massive fantasy football results as well.
During the six-year span that Addai played with Manning, he finished as a top-10 fantasy running back three times. In James’s seven seasons with Peyton, he found the top 10 a remarkable five times. Even Moreno ended up as a top-five fantasy running back last season with Manning under center.
It would be unfair to say that the sole reason these running backs performed so well is because of Peyton Manning. But it would be downright dumb to downplay how much Manning can enhance a runner’s natural ability.
As the 2014 season draws excruciatingly near, Montee Ball is in line to be the next beneficiary of having the Sheriff running the show. Despite missing time this offseason due to appendectomy surgery, Ball is currently the RB7 in 12-team standard-scoring drafts according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. For a player with only 120 career carries to be drafted so high shows a remarkable level of belief in Ball, and more importantly, belief in Peyton Manning’s ability to help his running backs.
Ball finished last season as the fourth-best running back according to numberFire’s Rush Net Expected Points (NEP) metric among running backs with 75 to 150 carries. If Ball stays healthy, he has a legitimate shot at doubling his carry total from last season, and should finish as a top-10 fantasy option.
I recently wrote about situations where it can be advantageous to “handcuff” running backs. By selecting backup running backs late in our fantasy drafts, we’re basically purchasing a lottery ticket in the event of an injury to the starter ahead of our backup. One of the prime examples of when to handcuff is in any offense piloted by Peyton Manning.
Redemption for Ronnie?
During his two-year NFL career, Ronnie Hillman has twice as many fumbles (4) as rushing touchdowns (2). He only has 139 total career carries and a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry average. So why should we be excited about him?
According to the Broncos official depth chart, Hillman is the number two running back behind Ball. And while depth charts are always fluid during the preseason, Hillman also leads the team in carries through three preseason games.
Despite the positives surrounding Hillman this offseason, our metrics from last year don’t look very promising. Out of 23 running backs who recorded 40 to 60 carries in 2013, Hillman finished 19th in Rushing NEP.
While Hillman was well below-average on the ground, he was very efficient catching the football given his volume. Out of 22 running backs who caught between 10 and 15 passes last season, Hillman ranked third in Reception NEP. While the sample size is small, it’s a still a positive indicator that Hillman can be effective in the receiving game. Last year’s starter Knowshon Moreno caught 60 passes, showing that receiving ability is crucial for running backs in the Broncos’ offense.
Another Possible Candidate?
Although C.J. Anderson was rumored to be on the bubble to even make the 53-man roster earlier in the preseason, it now appears he has locked down the third running back spot behind Ball and Hillman.
What makes Anderson appealing is his prototypical NFL build. He's 5’8”, 224 pounds, compared to Hillman who is 5’10”, 195 pounds. And although size is not a guarantee for success, Anderson certainly fits the mold of a workhorse running back.
Anderson only logged seven carries last season, so his sample size may be a little misleading. He did, however, finish sixth in Rush NEP among 20 running backs with 5-10 carries last season, for what it's worth.
And while not necessarily a damming verdict on his receiving ability, the fact that Anderson did not record a single catch in 2013 does tilt the handcuff battle in Hillman’s favor.
Given everything we’ve learned so far this preseason, it appears that Hillman, though relatively diminutive for an NFL running back, would be the one to gain a major role if Montee Ball would fall to injury. It seems almost certain he would take on the pass-catching role, due to his vastly superior ability compared to the other options.
The good news is that you may not need to spend a draft pick on Hillman or Anderson, and may be able to wait it out and player the waiver wire if Ball gets injured. Hillman is currently going at 13.10 according to Fantasy Football Calculator, while Anderson has no ADP is 12-team, standard scoring leagues.
Our fantasy football rankings here at numberFire agree that Hillman is the superior option to Anderson; Hillman is ranked at RB62 while Anderson comes in at RB82 in 12-team, standard scoring.
While injuries should not be counted upon due to their random nature, if Montee Ball would get hurt, there’s a bundle of fantasy goodness awaiting the next man up in Denver. And it would be wise as a fantasy owner to be ready.