ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever John Elway describes the developmental process, the Denver Broncos’ chief football decision-maker will routinely offer, “We don’t draft All-Pros, we have to make them.’’
Over the course of the next week, we’ll take a glimpse at a few key players on the Broncos' depth chart who are at various stages of the developmental process. Some have been named to the Pro Bowl, some will be starters for the first time in the coming season and 2013 ended with an injury for others.
But what they all have in common: More is expected of them than they could give, for a variety of reasons, in last season’s run to the Super Bowl.
Today: Running back Montee Ball
There is no place on the roster where the Broncos have put the fate, and faith, of a position group into the hands of young, homegrown players any more than they have at running back.
Sure, they could still take a look at a high-odometer veteran later this summer if they don't like what they see in training camp, but right now it’s Ball leading a group of youngsters that includes three players who were undrafted rookies and one, C.J. Anderson, who made the roster last year as an undrafted rookie. Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, is the most experienced player in the group.
But the starting job is Ball’s to keep, which is exactly what the plan was when the Broncos selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft. They saw a potential lead back with the smarts and toughness to learn the rest of what’s needed in their offense.
For the Broncos, it isn’t enough to simply run the ball and look good doing it. That helps, but a back has to be savvy enough to understand pass protection and willing to put himself between a charging linebacker or defensive end and quarterback Peyton Manning. That's because the Broncos open up the formation the majority of the time, so that can leave a running back to clean up a mess from time to time if a rusher gets free.
Ball missed one such block in the preseason, against the Seattle Seahawks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner leveled Manning. At that point, Knowshon Moreno went from a veteran with a potentially shaky roster spot to the No. 1 back, a guy who finished the season with 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions. Moreno was the most reliable in pass protection, so Moreno got the most opportunity to, in turn, run with the ball.
But Ball didn’t protect much at Wisconsin and didn’t catch the ball much, either -- as he put it recently, “We threw the ball like every three weeks’’ -- and the Broncos knew it was going to be a work in progress. However, Ball is smart and has consistently worked with Manning to fill in the gaps.
He showed quality hands in recent workouts, even making some over-the-shoulder catches in red-zone team drills, and Manning consistently showed he was willing to throw to Ball in a variety of down-and-distance situations, a key hurdle of trust for any player in the team’s offense.
As far as running the ball, the Broncos didn’t make Moreno any sort of offer to stay in free agency -- Elway said the team would look to bring Moreno back if Moreno didn’t find anything in the opening weeks of free agency -- because of what they saw from Ball as the 2013 season progressed.
Take fumbles. Ball lost the ball three times in the team’s first 11 games, including a fumble in the overtime loss in New England in the 11th game, but did not lose it again down the stretch or in the Broncos’ three postseason games.
And after pounding Moreno at the Patriots defense 37 times to the tune of a career-best 224 yards in that overtime loss, the Broncos split the carries much of the rest of the way. In the last eight games, Ball had 73 carries and Moreno had 96.
Ball also became more efficient in the running game as the season wore on and, as he got more carries, he produced more big runs. In the first eight games of the season, he had just two carries that gained more than 10 yards -- or 3.6 percent of his 55 carries over the first eight games. In the season’s second half, he had 11 of his 65 carries -- 16.9 percent -- gain more than 10 yards.
While the Broncos didn’t create much room in the postseason for the big-play run as they lined up almost exclusively in their three-wide receiver set and Moreno had all four of the team’s postseason carries that gained more than 10 yards. The team liked the way Ball was trending in the second half of the season. They will believe that will be the norm moving forward, rather than the exception.
And while they aren’t looking for some 300-carry running back to lug it around as the lead guy, they want to run the clock when they need to and close things out when they have the chance. That’s Ball, with one or two of the other youngsters spelling Ball and playing the change-of-pace role.