Editor’s note: This is a guess post from Kevin Roberts of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow Fantasy Football Overdose on twitter at @NBAandNFLInfo, and for more Denver Broncos News and Rumors visit Fantasy Football Overdose – your online source for anything about fantasy football.
With only the often injured Knowshon Moreno and a scat back in Ronnie Hillman as his main competition in Denver’s backfield, most fantasy analysts thought Ball was locked into a steady first-year role.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ball struggled with fumbles, drops and missed assignments early, and simply wasn’t a very effective runner through his first seven games. Despite having the build and strength to handle the rigors of the NFL, Ball seemed to not be completely there mentally and lacked the versatility and hands to be an impact player when he didn’t already have his hands on the football.
This forced Denver’s hand, and instead of the two-back system they probably wanted to roll with to start the year, they enlisted Moreno as their true feature back. That led to Moreno having a career revival of sorts, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, while catching 60 passes.
Moreno was a has been that not many looked at as a serious fantasy option heading into the season, but thanks to Ball’s ineffectiveness and Denver’s passing game getting so much attention from defenses, he suddenly could thrive. Just like that, out of nowhere, Moreno was hovering on RB1 status on a weekly basis.
So, with Moreno scheduled to hit free agency this off-season, it begs the question; can Ball do the same thing in fantasy football in 2014?
The short answer by most will be yes, but you need to consider all the factors of Ball’s role first. For one, I don’t love him as a receiver out of the backfield. Granted, he did improve greatly in this area and secured 18 catches over Denver’s final seven games, but he doesn’t have soft hands or the explosiveness you like out of your running back that is catching balls out of the backfield.
There’s also the clear reality that Denver (John Fox, mostly) loves to deploy a two-back system to help keep all of his running backs involved and fresh. It also helps keep the defense on it’s toes, as they have to adjust to new personnel on the field.
However, just because Moreno is likely out of the picture doesn’t mean Ball will suddenly swallow up his exact role. After all, Ronnie Hillman is still in Denver and is extremely versatile and explosive. His role was wiped away for most of the second half of the season, but you have to imagine he’d be back in the fold with Moreno gone. At the very least, he’d be more involved on third downs and passing situations. He’s light years ahead of Ball as a receiver and play-maker in the open field.
But that’s not what third downs are all about. Ball is actually superior to Hillman in what is more important – pass protection. He was a little shaky starting out as a rookie, but that was fairly understandable when you go back and look at things, and now he’s much more trustworthy in these types of situations.
The last thing to consider is, can Ball be as productive as Moreno with a bigger workload? I really don’t see a reason to doubt that.
Ball did struggle out of the gates, but has publicly admitted he was a bit overwhelmed by Denver’s playbook. I’m sure he also had rookie jitters to a certain degree and his raw third down skills also needed time to develop.
The numbers overall, however, project well for Ball in an expanded role. We already knew he had the body and hip fluidity to tough out life in between the tackles, while his underrated speed and agility can even make people miss. But we didn’t know he’d be this effective as a pure runner so fast. His 4.7 yards per carry can be seen as a benefit from playing behind Manning, but that’s still about Ball as a runner, too, and his vision is also a part of that, as well.
In week 13 Ball piled on 117 rushing yards on the Kansas City Chiefs, and did so on just 13 carries. The Chiefs weren’t a dominant defense anymore at that point, but he did this one the road and it’s still impressive. Not impressed? Ball progressed so well and gained so much momentum as a runner, that he averaged no less than 5.1 yards per carry in five of his final six games. In fact, the only game he didn’t dominate on the ground, he only received three carries and probably can’t fairly be judged.
As a rookie, in a complex system, Ball came out as an impressive back. He eventually picked up the blitz better than expected, safely caught the ball out of the backfield, dominated defenses in mop up time, and punched in touchdowns at the goal-line (4).
As stated, it’s only fair to assume the Broncos will continue doing things the way they have been. That probably means a two-back system once again, regardless of what the future holds for Moreno. But as long as Moreno is gone, there’s every reason to think Ball can approach RB1 status in fantasy football in 2014. Even with Hillman taking up time on third downs and in passing situations, Ball has evolved enough that he’ll take up at least half of those snaps, while still being the early down, short-yardage and goal-line option. That kind of role and his rookie production add up for a season not too different than the one Moreno is currently being lauded for.
As for his fantasy draft value, it’s possible Ball will be slightly overvalued. However, as we’ve seen with Moreno, any running back in a Manning-led offense needs to garner serious consideration to be owned. This shouldn’t vault Ball to the first round of any drafts, but before it’s all said and done, round two or three should be where he’s being selected.