ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are bigger backs in the 2013 NFL Draft class than the 5-foot-10, 214-pound Montee Ball, but one can argue that none of them played bigger in recent years.
Certainly, none scored more touchdowns. Not recently, and not ever among Division I players. Ball was close to a sure thing in short-yardage and goal-line situations -- but was equally effective at other spots all over the field, which is why he averaged more than 5 yards per carry in each of the last three seasons.
"He's a big back with a ton of production in college, who has great quickness and a great slashing-type style and is always heading north and south," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said. "So, we liked him a lot. We thought he could be a three-down guy for us, so we were thrilled he was available for us at the bottom of the second."
Perhaps the only concern on Ball is his workload at Wisconsin; he racked up 663 carries the last two years. But he handled that work without missing a game. Ball had at least 30 carries in six of his last 17 games for the Badgers; I doubt he'll see that kind of workload more than once -- or at most, twice -- a year in the NFL.
Ball was often the only viable threat on the Wisconsin offense in 2012. Thanks to massive graduation losses and near-total turnover in the coaching staff, the passing offense struggled for consistency and traction. As a result, defenses flooded eight or nine men into the box, knowing Ball was the Badgers' only potent weapon. Ball nevertheless averaged 5.1 yards per carry and closed the year with five consecutive 100-yard games.
He is also a capable blocker who has the physicality and the acumen to improve in that area. Because the running back's blitz pickup is so crucial to the timing of the short to intermediate passing game, if you can't block, you're not going to have much of a future playing in an offense led by Peyton Manning -- or one led by Brock Osweiler, since the ideal future for the Broncos involves Osweiler inheriting the offensive scheme (which will be the only one he's known) and taking it over.
If Ball develops according to the Broncos' plans, he'll be a quarterback's best friend. In addition to his blocking, his decisive running style makes him an excellent
option for a quick inside handoff when Manning audibles upon seeing a threat of pressure from both edges. In that situation, Ball will rarely be stopped short of at least a 5-yard gain.
"We view him as a three-down back that will be a great fit for our team," Broncos Head Coach John Fox said.
That Fox specifically spoke of Ball as a "three-down" back is crucial. Earlier this week, Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway described 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman as a "change of pace" back. He referred to Willis McGahee as the "big back." But Ball now appears to be on a collision course with being the Broncos' primary running back; the only question is when that happens.
"We've got a good set of backs now, so with Montee coming in it just adds to that," Elway said.
The impact on the Broncos' running back corps is profound. Denver would have been in decent shape going into the season with its returning complement of McGahee, Hillman, Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball and fullback Jacob Hester, along with Jeremiah Johnson and Mario Fannin pushing for playing time in training camp. But with Ball in play, at least one of last year's running backs from the regular season has to go.
McGahee is the oldest of the running backs; his contract expires after 2014, but his salary-cap hit is lower than that of Moreno, who is on the last year of his first contract (but has a club option for 2014). Being under the salary cap, the Broncos have the option of keeping their entire running back complement around through training camp and seeing if injury attrition makes the decision for them.
"We will get through the draft and sit down and look at the offensive board and see what we are going to do there, but until we get through the draft, we're not going to do anything," Elway said. "We're going to finish the draft and see how everything falls and then reassess everything on both sides of the ball."
A less vital aspect of Ball's use is where he will sit on the depth chart -- particularly if he is part of a platoon. In Carolina, Fox usually started the veteran half of a tandem, which meant Stephen Davis was ahead of DeShaun Foster, then Foster was ahead of DeAngelo Williams, and finally Williams worked in front of Jonathan Stewart. However, the carries often balanced out. The depth chart might not say Ball is the first-teamer, but if he's healthy, he should expect plenty of work.
Ball's 40-yard dash time of 4.66 seconds shouldn't be of much concern, either. After all, Alfred Morris ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash last year and he worked out fine.
It's more about instincts, persistence and what the tape reveals; in those categories, Ball excels.