- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – While it would be nice for the Denver Broncos to get running back Montee Ball into a preseason game for a few snaps, get him a carry, see him run through some contact, his real target date to be ready to go is still Sept. 7, or the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
Ball, who had an appendectomy Aug. 4, returned to the practice field Tuesday and did a little more on Wednesday, but as it stands now the Broncos’ top running back is not expected to play in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Houston Texans. And since the Broncos usually play few, if any, starters in the fourth preseason game, Ball’s most likely return date is still the regular-season opener.
“Honestly, I don’t know,’’ Ball said after Wednesday’s practice. “We literally play it by ear when the day comes as to how I feel in the morning, and [there's] no reason to rush right now. The most important thing I’m doing is staying in the playbook, listening to Peyton’s adjustments, all that, staying in tune with everything and then contributing as much as possible.’’
Ball has been tabbed as the Broncos’ lead back since the start of offseason workouts and quarterback Peyton Manning has consistently said the second-year back is ready for a far larger role in the offense than Ball had as a rookie in 2013. Last season, after being the Broncos’ second-round pick in the 2013 draft, Ball finished with 559 yards rushing on 120 carries.
This year, the Broncos have big plans for Ball, so much so he might be the first Broncos back to top 250 carries in a season for the team since Reuben Droughns lugged it 275 times in 2004. So the practice rotation changed significantly when Ball felt abdominal pains in the early-morning hours just over two weeks ago.
With Ball out, Ronnie Hillman has taken most of the snaps with the starting offense, but C.J. Anderson and undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson, who has made a quality case to make the roster with his all-around work, also getting a selection of snaps with the regulars as well.
Given Ball’s work in the rest of the offseason program, as well as early on in training camp, the Broncos do not feel compelled to rush him back into the lineup now when he is expected to be such a big part of their offense later.
“I don’t know where he’s really at right now,’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “The trainers just let me know.’’
Ball did some individual drills with the other backs Tuesday, but did not participate in much else during practice, the first of three this week with the Houston Texans. On Wednesday, Ball did slightly more, doing individual drills as well as a few snaps in 7-on-7 drills with the starters. Broncos head coach John Fox said the team would “continue to upgrade’’ Ball’s participation in practice during the remaining preseason practices, including one Thursday with the Texans.
Ball said Wednesday he had lost some weight during his recovery from the appendectomy and is working his way back to 215 pounds, where he was before training camp opened. That, too, is a factor in his full return to the lineup, but again, the Broncos' focus for Ball is not Saturday, it’s the opener.
“[The weight] is slowly, slowly coming back,’’ Ball said. “I actually like it. I feel a lot faster, a lot more agile. So I’m going to play around with it a little bit, see how it is.’’
One offshoot of Ball’s absence is it has allowed the Broncos to give a long look at the other backs on the roster in some first-team or second-team situations in team drills, carries those backs might not have received had the Broncos simply been working Ball with the starters much of the time.
The Broncos opened camp with a young group at the position – Hillman, entering his third season, is the most experienced – and with roster cuts looming, the team faces a decision about how many backs they will keep and who those backs will be after Ball and Hillman.
For his part, Ball said he’s pointing to a full-speed start of the season, even though the waiting is indeed the hardest part.
“It’s frustrating, just because it’s a job that I love doing. It sucks — sitting on the sideline watching everybody else play and you’re not contributing like you want to. We have a great training staff and they’re doing a great job of bringing me along. … There’s no pain at all. It’s just now we’re going to see how it is to take contact. We’re going to see how it is. I’m sure we’re going to do some things with that. … It’s time to go. I’m here to play football, not to sit on the sideline.’’