Oct 5, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (28) before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Montee Ball seemed destined for NFL stardom coming into the 2014 season.
He got off to a rocky start in 2013, his rookie season, but ended on a hot streak that extended throughout the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl run. The second-round draft pick out of the University of Wisconsin looked as if he’d overcome his early case of fumbleitis and was ready to follow in the foot steps of some of the great Bronco running backs that had come before him.
Ultimately, that was not to be.
Five games, four starts, and one consistent, mediocre outcome.
While Ball was able to do some good things in his four starts for the Broncos, it was clear he just wasn’t getting it done in the Denver backfield this season.
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He amassed 172 yards on 55 carries with one touchdown before a severe groin injury all but derailed his season in Week Five versus the Arizona Cardinals. Ball was able to return a little more than a month later against the St. Louis Rams in Week 11, but re-aggravated his injury even more. He would sit out the rest of the season on IR.
In his absence, running backs Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, and rookie Juwan Thompson all were able to at least somewhat excel in the Broncos’ offense.
Thompson looked great for being an undrafted rookie and Hillman provided a big spark to a sputtering offense when Ball was first initially injured. Hillman redeemed himself to Broncos Country, before he got injured in Week 10, with three games where he crossed the century mark in all-purpose yardage. He also ripped off numerous explosive plays, something that Denver’s offense had been sorely lacking.
Anderson, in particular, ended up taking control of the reigns after Hillman’s injury and never let go. He had back-to-back 160 rushing-yard performances, two games where he was able to reach pay-dirt several times, and was the main reason the Broncos led the league in total rushing yardage for roughly the last month of the regular season. Anderson, without a doubt, will be Denver’s feature back going into next season as he is one of the brightest emerging stars in the NFL today.
So, that begs the question: where does Montee Ball fit in all of this?
Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (28) runs with the ball during the first half against the against the Indianapolis Colts at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Ball currently sits in the most troubling positional competition in all of football. Not even Ohio State’s three-way quarterback competition comes close to this.
Anderson looks seated as the starting tailback. The change-of-pace role and presumed backup job appears to belong to Hillman. Thompson’s potential has him pegged as the dark horse in all of this and he could make a major push in training camp for the backup spot.
What does Ball really have going for him in this competitive backfield? Let’s weigh his pros and cons.
Simply put, Ball’s potential will keep him in this race and likely on the team. Ball’s solid finish to his rookie season, coupled with a productive training camp, had many comparing him to legendary Bronco running back Terrell Davis before the start of the 2014 regular season. Though the former Wisconsin record breaker didn’t live up to expectations as the Broncos’ workhorse this season, he did show flashes of being starting material. On a three-yard touchdown run against the Indianapolis Colts (Week One), Ball showed the patience and balance necessary to perform at running back. A week later against the Kansas City Chiefs, he decisively exploded through the middle on a third-and-24, almost converting the long down.
All in all, Ball is still only 24 years old and is going into his third professional season, a season that hopefully won’t be as injury riddled as his last one was. Ball’s biggest problem is his indecisiveness and that’s correctable, especially with someone like Gary Kubiak now leading that way at head coach. The Broncos’ run blocking also wasn’t the greatest in the world early on in the season and the blocking schemes clearly didn’t suit Ball very well. He still has at least one more season to prove his worth to the Broncos and Broncos Country alike.
Unlike the others backs, Ball does not have much going for him besides his 2013 second-round draft status. While his rookie season showed great promise, when Ball actually stepped into the spotlight of being a starter in 2014, he was nowhere to be found. Over the course of the Broncos’ first four matchups, Ball averaged a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry and never ran for more than 67 yards in a single game. It’s not much of a coincidence that when Ronnie Hillman or C.J. Anderson took control of things in the backfield, they flourished while Ball was not able to.
There are two clear-cut, playmaking running backs ahead of him and it should stay that way. Even undrafted-rookie Juwan Thompson made more of an impact on the field than Ball did this season. He may be able to squeak past Thompson on the depth chart but it’s still hard to envision Ball having much of an impact with Anderson and Hillman sitting in the driver’s seat.
In a fierce four-way running back competition, Montee Ball will get a chance to prove to the Broncos exactly what he’s made of.
It’s certainly in the realm of possibility that he’s left as the odd man out, but Ball has shown just enough in his short two seasons to give himself a puncher’s chance.
If Ball can even relatively live up to his high draftee status, then he’ll probably find himself playing second fiddle to C.J. Anderson while Ronnie Hillman fills the role of scat-back in Denver’s offense. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that leap-frogging Anderson is nearly impossible.
Ball has the chance to right his own ship. If he does that this offseason, then the Broncos could have a very dangerous trio of backs on their hands.