Editor’s Note: This particular article is submitted by Member Corner author Zach Bahner. We welcome Zach to the Member Corner and look forward to seeing more of his work in the future!
From time-to-time, the NFL Draft ends up leaving us with more questions than answers – that can be especially true for fantasy football owners. Sometimes teams make picks that seem to not make much sense and that can greatly affect the value of players. The Cowboys made one of these picks in 1989 by drafting Steve Walsh with their first round pick in the supplemental draft after using the first overall pick on Troy Aikman that same year. The Bills were also guilty of this when they took CJ Spiller with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft while having Fred Jackson and former first rounder Marshawn Lynch on the roster.
This year, the Broncos arguably made one of those selections when they drafted Montee Ball with pick #58. Ball was the third running back selected and was taken over draft community favorites like Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and Christine Michael. Many in both the draft and fantasy football communities expected a running back to go the Broncos, but with bigger names still available, Ball was a bit of a surprise. On top of that, the Broncos used a third round pick (#67 overall) on Ronnie Hillman in 2012.
This has left the fantasy community with quite a conundrum, especially those owners who selected Hillman last year. According to 2012 rookie only ADP data on myfantasyleague.com, Hillman was the tenth rookie selected in rookie drafts with an ADP of 17.56. He was selected ahead of fellow running backs Isaiah Pead, Lamar Miller and Bernard Pierce, among others. It’s difficult to argue Hillman was overdrafted due to the uncertainty that the future of the Broncos’ backfield showed last season, but it is now a reality.
More of a change of pace back than an every down runner, Hillman had a less than extraordinary rookie campaign amassing only 3.8 yards per carry and one touchdown on 84 carries and only 62 receiving yards on ten receptions. Hillman is a runner who is best when used in space rather than as a between the tackles runner. His quick footwork can get him out of trouble, but his inability to give up on some plays causes him to lose more yardage than he should. Ultimately, Hillman is best served in a complementary role.
Hillman isn’t the only back on the Broncos’ roster that Ball may have to compete with for carries. The Broncos currently have nine running backs on the roster, but I’m going to focus on the five who have the best shot at making the roster and contributing this season – Knowshon Moreno, Willis McGahee, Hillman, Montee Ball and Lance Ball. Each of these players has reason for and against why he could get significant carries this season.
McGahee is the incumbent starter, but has a difficult injury history dating back to the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. McGahee has missed time in several seasons and missed the last six regular season games and playoffs last year due to a torn MCL and compression fracture in his right knee. On top of his concerning injury history, he will also turn 32 shortly after the start of the season and counts $3 million against the cap this year. The cap strapped Broncos would save $2 million against the cap if they parted ways with him. McGahee does have some positives, though. He rushed for 4.38 yards per carry and four touchdowns on 167 rushes last season. He also caught 26 passes for 221 yards.
Moreno, a first round pick by former head coach Josh McDaniels in 2009, has had a difficult time keeping hold of the starting job. He has had his own injury woes, missing 14 games in four seasons due to injuries and was a healthy scratch for eight weeks last season. When Moreno was on the field after the McGahee injury, he was unimpressive. He ran for 3.8 yards per carry and four touchdowns on 139 rush attempts. He also caught 21 passes for 7.95 yards per reception. Moreno is the definition of a “bulk carrier” – a running back who needs a large number of carries in order to amass much yardage. One thing Moreno does have going for him is the team would only save $945,000 against the cap if they decide to cut him and do away with his $3.287 million cap number.
The final back who has a solid chance at making the roster is restricted free agent Lance Ball (at this point I’ll refer to Lance and Montee by their first names to avoid confusion). Lance signed a $1.323 million tender this off season, none of which is guaranteed. Only amassing 192 carries in four seasons, Lance does not have the wear and tear that Moreno and McGahee have. Lance put up pedestrian numbers in 2012, averaging only 3.76 yards per carry and one touchdown on 42 carries. He also added 61 yards and one score on seven receptions. While Lance does not contribute much on offense, he is heavily relied upon for his special teams play. His special teams ability may very well lock him into a spot on the 53 man roster.
Finally, there is Montee Ball, the newest member of the Broncos’ backfield. Since Montee is a rookie, we have to look at his college career to determine what kind of role we anticipate for him in the NFL. When evaluating rookies, I typically do not look at their college stats. The reason for this is the quality of opponent can greatly skew those numbers. Rather than looking up stats, I look specifically at that player’s attributes and how they should translate into the NFL. I won’t go too deep into all the specifics of Montee’s game because our very own Jacob Feldman has already done an excellent job of that, but I will touch on a few high points.
One of the biggest things that sticks out to me about Montee is he is a patient, one cut runner – this is perfect for running in a zone blocking scheme like the Broncos use. While not having great top end speed, he does accelerate to his top speed very well and has elusiveness one would not expect from a power runner. Montee is also smart about the hits he takes, often spinning off them to deflect the force rather than absorb it. He is a solid blocker and performs well in the pass game.
One thing that could really show how much the Broncos plan on using Montee is the full back usage. At Wisconsin, Montee often ran behind a fullback or a tight end in motion – that is typical of John Fox run offenses. Andrew Mason did a great job illustrating in this article.
With the signing of Wes Welker, it looks like the fullback position could be on the sideline fairly often, but the Broncos didn’t sign Jacob Hester (one of the better fullbacks in the NFL) back in November for nothing. Hester actually saw a good number of snaps in the four weeks he was on the roster in 2012, playing 78 out of 331. While it is unlikely Hester will push Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Jacob Tamme or Joel Dreessen off the field very often, he should get some snaps to make way for Montee.
Based on recent production, special teams ability, injuries and salary cap implications, I believe McGahee will be cut sometime before the start of the regular season. I doubt the Broncos would go into the season with five running backs and based on that information, none of the other four backs make sense to cut. Depending on what we see in the preseason, Moreno could start the season as the #1 back, but will end up passed by Montee Ball early in the season. Moreno is a known commodity at this point, so I typically play it safe, rather than having high expectations come crashing down.
This leaves us with a few situations to contemplate. Who do I target in start-ups and where? How high should Montee Ball go in rookie drafts? If I’m a Ronnie Hillman owner, what do I make of this situation?
In a startup, the clear target is going to be Montee Ball, but don’t ignore Moreno or Hillman. Based on our current May ADP, Montee is the #26 running back selected in startups with an ADP of 65.33 – this puts him behind Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell as the fourth rookie running back taken. I’d certainly take him over Lacy due to fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin getting drafted by the Packers, as well. I would also take Montee over Steven Jackson and Ryan Mathews. Overall, I’d be happy taking Montee as high as the #20 running back in startups, but I wouldn’t push him any higher. Ronnie Hillman is currently the #48 running back off the board with an ADP of 137.83. If you take Montee, be willing to spend a tenth round selection if you want to guarantee yourself a handcuff – Moreno is currently the #59 running back selected and I would only take him as a spot starter. Beyond this year, Moreno’s value is not tied to Montee or Hillman.
Based on current ADP, Ball is the fifth player being selected in rookie only drafts with an ADP of 7.51. In my opinion, he should be the fifth player selected behind Bernard, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tavon Austin and DeAndre Hopkins. However, if you are completely set at the wide receiver position, take him any time after Bernard.
For those who took Hillman in last year’s rookie drafts, there are three options. The first option is to hold Hillman and not worry about drafting Ball. I don’t see a ton of value in that move, as I don’t see Hillman being higher than a RB4 or RB5 in most formats for the foreseeable future. The second option is to do whatever you need to do to draft Ball in your rookie draft and have Hillman as a decent handcuff in case Ball is ever injured – this could mean trading away a veteran or picks in order to secure him on draft day. The third option is to trade Hillman to whoever selects him in your rookie draft. If you take this option, however, don’t expect a terribly large amount of compensation. A third or fourth round pick might be all you can get for him at this juncture. My recommendation would be one of the latter two scenarios if you are able to get the proper value. If you can’t, go ahead and hold him and hope for either a better option in the future, or that I’m wrong and Hillman ends up a solid flex play.
While the preseason holds more answers than we can find right now, it appears clear Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman are the future in Denver.