Why We Shouldn't Count Out Montee Ball Just Yet
It seems like everyone is counting out Montee Ball.
The Denver Broncos certainly aren't committed to Ball as the lead back this year, and -- let's be honest -- there's no reason they should be given how well C.J. Anderson played last year. All indications point to Ball's starting chances being zero to begin the year.
And as far as fantasy football goes, it's more of the same.
Last year, when Ball was set to be the go-to guy in the Broncos' offense, he was being drafted as the 17th player overall from July 15th to the start of the regular season. That's not first-round territory, but it was just ahead of, on average, DeMarco Murray, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffery, Arian Foster, Le'Veon Bell, Randall Cobb, and Rob Gronkowski.
Players who went with Ball likely have him on their "never again" list (he has a re-draft ADP of 197 as of now), but that might be a bit hasty -- even though he, objectively, struggled last year.
So, at numberFire, we have a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which quantifies a player's production and compares it to expectation level (based on historical league data). A running back's Rushing NEP, then, indicates how many points above or below expectation level he provided for his team based on his carries.
On 55 carries in 2014, Ball managed to post a Rushing NEP of -8.08.
Since and including the 2000 season, only 58 (of 1,259) running backs who attempted 55 or fewer carries managed to lose his team eight points or more. Only three backs -- Mike Tolbert (-15.31 Rushing NEP on 37 carries), Maurice Jones-Drew (-13.72, 43), and Bryce Brown (-9.91, 36) -- lost more points on 55 carries or fewer in 2014.
Further, among the 36 backs to see between 40 and 100 carries in 2014, Ball's Success Rate (the percentage of carries that added to the Broncos' NEP) of 36.36% ranked just 29th.
Serendipitously, teammate Juwan Thompson led that group with a rate of 57.41% on 54 carries.
Problematically, among the 26 backs who ran between 100 and 200 times, Anderson was tops in Success Rate (46.93%). Ronnie Hillman (40.00%) ranked 12th.
The other Broncos rushers had success moving the ball forward, no surprise considering their offense, but Ball really did struggle, and that's why it's understandable that he's being forgotten.
But if he was that bad in 2013, expectations wouldn't have been high. So how good was he then?
Ball in 2013
So, by now you know that I'm not ready to count out Ball as an NFL running back just yet, but nothing shown so far has done anything but evidence how much he struggled last season.
2013 was at the opposite end of the spectrum for him.
In 2013, Ball toted the rock 119 times, not nearly the level of a lead back, but it's a fairly sizable sample. He maintained a Rushing NEP of 3.65, good for a 0.03 Rushing NEP per carry. Both of those marks ranked fifth among the 25 backs who ran the ball between 100 and 200 times in 2013.
But the Success Rate was atrocious, right? Isn't that his thing?
Nope. It was really good.
His mark of 50.42% was second in this subset only to LeGarrette Blount (53.59%). By comparison, Knowshon Moreno, his teammate, posted a Success Rate of 42.56% on 242 carries (but did secure a nice 17.37 Rushing NEP). Hillman added points on 41.82% of his carries.
So he was the team's best bet at moving the sticks forward in 2013 but the worst in 2014.
And he was a little more than just the best on the Broncos. Since 2000, only 37 backs maintained a Success Rate better than 50% with at least 100 carries. That's out of 681 individual seasons.
If we get even pickier and set the bar right at 119 carries, only 27 of 596 backs maintained a rate better than 50%.
Sure, Ball's Rushing NEP ranked just 24th in that group, but let's not forget how many costly fumbles he had as a rookie. That demolished his Rushing NEP, but he still moved the theoretical sticks more often than not, and not many players can say they've done so at such a volume.
Holding on to Hope
No, we can't excuse those fumbles as a rookie and say they weren't his fault. We can't really excuse the fact that his teammates were very successful last year compared to him.
However, given his superb Success Rate in 2013 and the fact that he did undergo an appendectomy weeks before the 2014 season, we shouldn't expect that his 2014 performance is really all Ball has to offer the Broncos going forward.
He might not make an impact this year if Anderson stays healthy and productive, but when given the chance, odds are that Ball will live up to the hype that once surrounded him.