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Player Spotlight: Denver Running Backs

A detailed look at Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno's fantasy prospects for 2013

Footballguys' own Cecil Lammey is as plugged into the Denver Broncos situation as anyone in the business -- he's the host of ESPN Denver's drive time radio show and is a Broncos insider who covers the team all year round and spends every day at training camp. In other words, his views on the team have significant merit.  To hear Cecil tell it, the Broncos RB situation is in a great position to help the team compete for a Super Bowl...but it's going to be a frustrating unit for fantasy owners.

A DYNAMIC OFFENSE -- LOOKING FOR A NEW WRINKLE?

No one reading this Spotlight needs me to explain that the Denver Broncos were dynamic last year in Peyton Manning's first season in the Mile High. But what you may not realize is that the Broncos weren't the balanced squad some of us expected them to be.

  • 481 points scored (2nd in the NFL)
    • 37 passing touchdowns (3rd)
    • 12 rushing touchdowns (16th)
  • 6,366 yards (4th)
    • 4,534 passing yards (5th)
    • 1,832 rushing yards (16th)
  • 5.8 yards per play
    • 7.4 yards per pass attempt (1st)
    • 3.8 yards per rush (25th)

The running game wasn't effective at times, and certainly didn't balance against the elite productivity of the passing game.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD -- OUT WITH MCGAHEE, IN WITH BALL

Denver used a 2nd round draft choice on Montee Ball -- a 5'11", 214 lbs. dynamo from the University of Wisconsin. Ball scored an astounding 77 touchdowns in his 4-year career -- 55 of them came in his final two seasons, along with 3,753 yards rushing. He was among the most productive RBs in college history. Shortly after Ball was drafted, fantasy owners immediately began baking in Ball as the new workhorse -- the cure for what ailed the Broncos last season. That enthusiasm increased further when Denver released veteran Willis McGahee. McGahee was 31 years old and on the down slope of his career, but he was productive in a part-time role last year.

  • 10 games played, 9 starts
  • 167 carries (16.7 per game)
  • 731 yard rushing (73.1 per game)
  • 4.4 yards per rush
  • 4 rushing TDs
  • 26 receptions (2.6 per game)
  • 221 receiving yards (22.1 per game)
Unfortunately Ball's addition and McGahee's age and mounting injury history made him expendable. 
Getting back to Ball, is the over enthusiasm warranted? Whenever we're analyzing rookies one of the first places I start is with Footballguys' own Matt Waldman, who pens the amazing Rookie Scouting Portfolio every season. Matt is as precise and exacting a rookie skill position analyst as our industry has ever seen. While Waldman appreciated Ball, he only ranked him 10th among rookie RBs entering the April draft, and believes he's a good but not great prospect.

The big question about Ball is how he compares to other Wisconsin prospects of the past 10-15 years. The Wisconsin line outweighs some of its opposition by as much as 50 pounds per man and for much of Ball's career there were some massive holes for him to run through. I believe Ball has more NFL-caliber skills than his predecessors, but I don't think he's a special player. He reminds me of a lot of Chester Taylor in the respect that he's capable of becoming an NFL starter and producing at a high level behind a strong offensive line.

Perhaps the most damning portion of Matt's analysis relates to Ball's pass protection:

He has to improve his pass protection, specifically his punch, footwork, and angles on cut blocks. He's willing, but he has to work harder at this aspect of the game. There's potential, but the practice of gauging angles and technique to deliver a shot and keep his feet moving need work.

Protecting Peyton Manning is THE PRIMARY skill for any Broncos running back. While Ball can certainly become a good blocker, there's no question that a lack of progress on that front will supercede any potential he has as an offensive weapon. The Broncos want their best players on the field, but they can get by with a less explosive runner if it means keeping Manning safe. 

RONNIE HILLMAN -- READY TO EMERGE?

The early rise in Ball's ADP coincided with McGahee's release, but was based on the flawed assumption that Ball was uncontested in the Broncos backfield. Fantasy owners forgot that Ball's competition wasn't (just) McGahee, it was also 2nd year Ronnie Hillman and 5th year Knowshon Moreno. Ronnie Hillman is the more exciting of the two from a fantasy perspective. 

Hillman was a 3rd round pick a season ago out of San Diego State where he ran for 3,243 yards and 36 touchdowns in two seasons. Hillman doesn't have prototypical size (he was a light at 180 lbs. during his rookie season), but has bulked up to 200 lbs. in an effort to secure a more important role. Hillman didn't do much as a rookie...but not because he wasn't talented, but because he was a rookie and John Fox didn't trust him. By virtue of being a second year player, Hillman already had a better shot at contributing in 2013. But his conditioning, focus and dedication throughout the offseason has vaulted Hillman into contention for a primary role. In fact, Hillman was listed as the starter on the Broncos first official depth chart. Now it's important to recognize that the first depth chart is hardly indicative of how the regular season touches will be distributed, but it is very much an indication that Hillman is in the hunt for at least a 50/50 split with Ball. 

KNOWSHON MORENO -- BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY

A year ago many figured Moreno had run out of chances in Denver. After all, the former 1st rounder (2009) had seen his role reduced in each of his three seasons, and he wasn't one of John Fox's guys. Yet, as the NFL proves time and time again, preseason expectations have a way of looking silly in retrospect. Moreno was a non factor for the first 10 games of the season, but injuries mounted and Moreno was forced into the lineup. He did not disappoint.

  • Games 11-16 (Six Games)
  • 130 carries
  • 510 yards
  • 3.9 yards per rush
  • 20 receptions
  • 155 receiving yards
  • 6 touchdowns

Those numbers may not stand out at first blush, but in fact they were enough to rank Moreno as the 13th best fantasy RB over the final six games. 

Running Back Fantasy Points (Weeks 11-17) -- 2012

RankName RushRuYdsRecsRecYDsTDsFPTs
1 Adrian Peterson 153 969 11 62 6 139.1
2 Alfred Morris 171 812 6 42 8 133.4
3 Marshawn Lynch 102 587 9 59 7 106.6
4 Doug Martin 146 592 26 176 4 100.8
5 Jamaal Charles 130 775 13 78 2 97.3
6 Arian Foster 129 537 23 125 5 96.2
7 C.J. Spiller 119 612 15 162 3 95.4
8 DeAngelo Williams 101 484 8 140 4 86.4
9 Trent Richardson 115 375 20 127 6 86.2
10 Ray Rice 113 486 26 194 3 86.0
11 Matt Forte 124 514 22 164 3 85.8
12 Steven Jackson 120 538 24 197 2 85.5
13 Knowshon Moreno 131 513 20 155 3 84.8
14 Stevan Ridley 118 449 0 0 6 80.9
15 Frank Gore 118 461 9 95 4 79.6

Moreno seems positioned as the clear #3 again, but last year we saw proof that he can be an effective option if called upon. His ability to deliver solid RB2 numbers last year should serve as proof that the Broncos are in good hands regardless of who totes the rock.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING = FANTASY FRUSTRATION

The Denver Broncos have no reason to make fantasy owners happy. Granted, they WILL make fantasy owners happy when it comes to the passing game. Peyton Manning will be a top 5 fantasy QB. Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker could all end up top 20 fantasy WRs. But the RB situation does not appear to be as encouraging. Montee Ball may eventually become a work horse, and ultimately that will happen if Ronnie Hillman fails to build on his offseason momentum. Yet the most likely scenario calls for Hillman and Ball to BOTH have roles, yet this is a passing offense that won't support two RBs in terms of fantasy value. Splitting time = fantasy purgatory for them both. If Moreno secures a role (perhaps as the 3rd down specialist), it becomes even less compelling of a situation to target. 

POSITIVES

  • The Broncos offense should be among the best in the league, creating plenty of opportunities for the runners to wrack up yards and score goal line touchdowns
  • Ball is a touchdown machine, and the Broncos are willing to give a goal-line RB the bulk of touches even with the passing weapons at their disposal
  • Hillman has graduated from John Fox's rookie penalty box and has been given plenty of opportunity with the 1s this preseason

NEGATIVES

  • The Broncos are going to throw the ball a preponderance of the time
  • This could (and likely is) a true committee situation, meaning none of the backs may have every week fantasy value
  • The Broncos offensive line lost not one but two centers and has question marks...which may require the RBs to be blockers more than we're used to

FINAL THOUGHTS

Montee Ball is a talented runner that could easily deliver fantasy RB1 numbers in the right situation. Yet, we don't believe this year's Broncos team is necessarily the right situation -- yet fantasy owners are drafting Ball as though it's a foregone conclusion he will be a workhorse. Working against him are three things: 1) The Broncos are a passing team under Peyton Manning's watch, 2) John Fox has always been loathe to trust rookies, particularly RBs that have to protect an aging franchise QB, and 3) Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno are both capable of producing when given touches. Ball could score double digit touchdowns, in which case even a part-time committee role may justify his position as a low end fantasy RB2, but we think there is better value on the board at the point in your draft where you would have to draft Ball. Hillman has looked sharp and could be in line for 'starting' this year, in which case we would have a true committee time share. Hillman has value based on his current ADP but only as a backup that might evolve into more as the season wears on. Don't draft Hillman as your RB1 or RB2, even if he's named the starter. Moreno appears to be the 3rd man in the rotation, but we saw last season that if called upon he can and should be in someone's fantasy lineup.

PROJECTIONS

Montee Ball Projections

 GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
David Dodds 16 205 861 4.2 6 26 195 7.5 1 148
Bob Henry 15 195 840 4.3 9 15 115 7.7 0 150
Jason Wood 16 200 900 4.5 7 23 155 6.7 0 148
Maurile Tremblay 16 122 506 4.1 4 24 183 7.6 1 99

Ronnie Hillman Projections

 GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
David Dodds 16 105 441 4.2 2 24 204 8.5 1 83
Bob Henry 15 145 650 4.5 2 21 180 8.6 1 101
Jason Wood 16 165 725 4.4 5 20 180 9.0 1 127
Maurile Tremblay 16 162 662 4.1 4 30 225 7.5 1 119

Knowshon Moreno Projections

 GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
David Dodds 15 60 235 3.9 2 11 79 7.2 0 43
Bob Henry 14 85 340 4.0 2 22 175 8.0 1 70
Jason Wood 14 60 235 3.9 0 2 10 5.0 0 25
Maurile Tremblay 12 95 380 4.0 3 14 106 7.6 0 67

THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB

Cory Bonini of KFFL thinks Montee Ball is one of six players that are overvalued:

It is not a foregone conclusion that Ball has the starting job on lockdown. It seems likely that he will lead the Broncos in carries over the course of the season, although he will have to contend with Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno for touches. Ball is most safely drafted as a third back, which won't happen in most leagues, as owners are overzealously drafting him inside the top 20. He won't see the field on third downs if he cannot protect Peyton Manning. This isn't your older brother's Denver running game.

Dalton Del Don and Brad Evans of Yahoo! debate Montee Ball and fellow rookie Le'Veon Bell:

Willis McGahee has been released, and Ronnie Hillman is best suited for a change of pace role. Knowshon Moreno might very well be the most injury-prone back in football. McGahee and Moreno combined for 1,256 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on just 305 carries last year, and Ball offers a lot more physical upside at this point of their careers. It also doesn’t hurt getting to play the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs six times. Even if things don’t break perfectly and Ball doesn’t rack up 350 touches this year, the touchdown potential in this offense is huge.


More from Jason Wood:

What If Roddy White or Julio Jones Are Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Robert Griffin III Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Cecil Shorts Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
Player Spotlight: Philip Rivers - August 8
Player Spotlight: Jordan Cameron - August 7
Player Spotlight: LeSean McCoy - August 7
Player Spotlight: Peyton Manning - August 6
Player Spotlight: Marshawn Lynch - August 6
Preseason Watch List - July 22
Preseason Watch List: AFC North - July 22