Willis McGahee is pushed down the Broncos' depth chart, presumably soon to be off to wherever it is that football players from The U go where they retire, like Nevin Shapiro's penthouse. (Editor's Note: Annnnd he's been cut.) Instead, the Broncos have a cavalcade of backs looking to be the guy standing on the field and watching as Peyton throws to the three-headed monster of Thomas, Welker, and Decker.
Right now, Ronnie Hillman seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for first-team reps in minicamp, but he's boring. Hillman lost the Broncos an average of 0.17 Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush last season, a total of 14.02 points lost over the course of the season given 84 rushing attempts. Considering the NFL average NEP per rush last season was just -0.03, Hillman wasn't even close to efficient in the backfield.
In his place, we turn our attention to the guy making the most noise around these fantasy parts: Montee Ball. According to the earliest version of our upcoming Fantasy Draft Kit, we expect Ball to gain the lion's share of the Broncos' carries at 203.9 rush attempts over the season. But how effective will he be at them?
If our Rookie Estimation Algorithm Derivative, or READ, is any indication, don't expect a rookie breakout sensation in Denver.
Scroll to the bottom if you just want the projection. What follows is the explanation of how we got to those numbers.
Similar to how we already figured out Tavon Austin's potential, READ starts with a a similarity scoring algorithm based off of the combine and pro day results, chosen simply because it ignores the variance inherent in different offensive schemes and the subsequent performance statistics. Because not everyone runs the same drills at the combine/pro day, we're choosing to compare them on the ones more commonly run and the ones most predictable of positional value.
From there, we bake in the team analytics for their future NFL team from the season prior. You'll note that we use analytics and not statistics; this is because statistics like yards against, points against, etc. can be extremely misleading as they do not take into consideration the strength of opponent, situation of the game, and so forth. However, statistics like Net Expected Points as used above do.
Finally, we bake in a simple sanity check. This check looks at the projected position on the depth chart (for Ball, we'll assume he's the No. 1 back) and weighs in the average performance from that role on teams similar to their future NFL team. After all of this, we have an estimation of performance which is much more than just someone's anecdotal opinion, but rather a projection that is rooted in mathematical modeling. Whew.
The Top Comparables
How does the next Arian Foster sound? Not half bad? Well, how about the next Troy Hambrick or Quincy Wilson? Given Montee Ball's combine results, any of these options are possible.
In terms of his top ten comparables, Montee Ball is all over the board. His potential shows a ton of variability, which isn't bad if you're looking at him in the sixth or seventh round but could be a team killer if you draft him at his current average draft position of 37th overall.
Looking a bit further down the list, Reuben Droughns and LeGarrette Blount aren't absolutely terrible guys to be compared with, and Ryan Torain did have 742 yards in only eight starts for the Broncos in 2010. But if I'm Montee Ball and looking at this list, I'm starting to be a bit discouraged about my breakout potential.
|Arian Foster||96.83%||Undrafted, 2009|
|Troy Hambrick||96.06%||Undrafted, 2000|
|Quincy Wilson||95.35%||7th Rd., 2004|
|Reuben Droughns||94.96%||3rd Rd., 2001|
|Marcel Shipp||94.84%||Undrafted, 2001|
|Stafon Johnson||92.33%||Undrafted, 2010|
|Kevan Barlow||92.06%||3rd Rd., 2001|
|Ryan Torain||92.03%||5th Rd., 2008|
|LeGarrette Blount||91.87%||Undrafted, 2010|
|Adrian Peterson (CHI)||91.21%||6th Rd., 2002|
The Team Analytics
This is the fun one: just how much will the Broncos actually rush the ball with Wes Welker on board? Last season, the Broncos rushed the ball 481 total times, the ninth-most rushing attempts in the entire NFL. However, their 588 passing attempts were also the 10th-most, bring the total rushing proportion to just 45.0 percent of all plays.
That's not too surprising, though, considering the Broncos were less efficient than average running the ball and more efficient than average passing the ball. The Broncos totaled -0.04 NEP per rush last season, ranking 22nd overall in the NFL. McGahee wasn't the issue; he posted -0.01 NEP per rush while the rest of the Broncos backs brought the total down. But on the flip side, Denver averaged 0.19 NEP per pass gained in 2012, the sixth-most efficient passing game in the league. Which one they'd prefer to go with should be obvious.
With passing the greatest priority in Denver, don't expect to see whoever wins the running back competition to receive copious opportunities. It's almost like Mike Shanahan never even left as fantasy owners are tortured by Denver backs. Maybe Ball will hit 200 carries, but that's not a definite. Maybe Peyton will just pass the ball 80 percent of the time, you never really know. Not knowing scares the life out of me.
The Sanity Check
Now, let's play the elimination game. To find Ball's true top comparable players, I'm going to cut off two groups of people:
1. Players who weren't drafted between the second and fourth rounds: People who were drafted too high (hello, Mark Ingram) or low (hello, Quincy Wilson) didn't truly come into the league with the same expectations as Ball, did they?
2. Players who didn't receive 50 carries their first NFL season: Small sample sizes aren't useful in projecting how a player will truly perform.
With those players out of the way, the comparables begin to thin out. And for Ball, the results only look decent, but not spectacular, when viewing each player's rookie season.
|Comparable||Similarity||Rush Att.||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||NEP/Rush|
To me, Smith and Davis are the two most interesting names on this list. Despite being mid-round picks (third for Smith and fourth for Davis), both were expected to step right in as rookies and perform right away. Both had about 35 more carries than we project for Ball, but both finished right around the 1000 yard mark. And finally, they did what the rest of Ball's comparables (with the exception of Lamar Gordon's hilariously bad low-sample size rookie campaign) did and finished right around the NFL average in expected points per rush.
The Final Projection
So with all of that out of the way, what are we expecting for Montee Ball? Not too much. Given Smith and Davis's efficiency but slightly fewer opportunities in the Denver offense, we don't see Montee Ball as this year's Alfred Morris-patented breakout rookie star. In fact, he's only the No. 24 RB and No. 63 overall player on the early version of our fantasy draft kit.
|Player||Rush Att.||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||Receptions||Rec. Yards||Rec. TDs|
As you can see, given Denver's use of the running back in the passing game, Ball adds a little bit of value catching the ball as well. But it's still not enough to make up for an expected weaker-than-average running game for the Broncos this season as they shift towards the pass even more.
Montee Ball may be good, but he's not the 37th best player overall like current mock drafts have made him out to be. Among running backs, we like Chris Ivory and Ryan Mathews more even though they are being drafted later. And in the fourth or fifth round, you'd be much better off going wide receiver or tight end than trying to reach for this boom-or-bust back.