- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Montee Ball is a smart young man. With level-headed consideration, he fully understands his place on the Denver Broncos’ depth chart and in the offensive plans at the moment.
But then again, with running back Knowshon Moreno now in Miami, and Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson the only other backs on the roster with an NFL carry on their resumes, it doesn’t exactly take mind-bending calculus to do the math. And that’s fine with the Broncos, who selected him in the second round of last April’s draft to be a starting running back.
"I know for a fact they're not going to hand it to me, they're going to make sure we all get our opportunities throughout camp and throughout OTAs … but it’s going to be who’s the most productive," Ball said. "But for me, my mentality is that it is my job."
Ball also said Moreno’s departure was "a great opportunity for me and the other running backs to step up to the plate."
That said, however, Ball already knows first-hand what being tabbed a starter in April really means in the framework of how things go when the games actually get played. Last season the Broncos spent most of their offseason work with Hillman, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft, installed as the starter at running back, with plenty of plans built for Hillman's big-play potential.
But even as training camp opened, the Broncos had not seen all they wanted from Hillman. They thought he got a little too comfortable with the idea, so they were giving a long look to Ball in the lead role, as well. But when Ball missed a blitz pickup in a preseason loss in Seattle and quarterback Peyton Manning took a vicious hit from linebacker Bobby Wagner, it was Moreno who started to get more and more work in the offense.
And that’s the way it stayed as Moreno topped 1,000 yards rushing to go with 60 receptions. For his part, Ball, after some early fumble troubles -- he lost three fumbles in the team’s first 10 games -- settled in nicely in his rookie year.
He didn't lose the ball the remainder of the season and finished with 559 yards rushing and four touchdowns. His 4.7 yards per carry was the best among the team’s top three ball carriers, as well. All a big enough taste for Ball to want more.
"I don't want them to bring another running back in," Ball said. "I want it to be my job and that’s how I'm approaching it, in the most humble way possible. Like I said, I understand they're not going to hand it to me, but I'm going to work really, really hard to contribute."
Ball has already received a key vote of confidence, as Manning has already endorsed Ball’s readiness for the job, having said earlier this month that Ball has “the work ethic" and “mental capabilities to handle the workload."
And in the Broncos’ offense, there's a lot more on the to-do list than simply lugging the rock. There’s protecting Manning from those extra rushers, working as a receiver, and there is the ability to adjust to the inevitable changes at the line of scrimmage when Manning has the pedal to the metal in the team’s no-huddle look.
Ball’s ability to adjust and grow quickly last season didn't escape his teammates.
"How well he learned," said tight end Julius Thomas on Wednesday when he was asked what he noticed most about Ball as a rookie. "… He picked it up well, he focused on what his job was."
While the Broncos will give a long look to the running backs on the draft board next weekend in the second round and beyond, Ball’s emergence is the most important part of the Broncos’ efforts to find more efficiency in the run game. With Manning behind center and new arrival Emmanuel Sanders expected to add some pop in a passing attack that already includes Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, as well as Wes Welker –- all three have been Pro Bowl selections in their careers –- the Broncos aren’t looking to make their offense some kind of grind-it-out affair.
But depending on the run shouldn't be an issue for the Broncos, either. With the move of right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to left guard, and with All-Pro Louis Vasquez already at right guard, Denver should be able to create more space in the middle of the field against defenses deployed in lighter nickel and dime packages to combat the Broncos’ three-wide receiver look. Last season, about eight of every 10 carries for Moreno went against formations with six or fewer players in the box, something Ball and the Broncos would expect again.
"[I've] got to take what the defense gives you every play," Ball said. "It’s not going to be a 30-yard run, a 20-yard run every play like it was at Wisconsin. Sometimes it’s going to be a 2-yard, 3-yard run …
"A lot more patience, a lot more patience. You can’t be greedy … You’ve got to trust your blocks, allow the play to develop and trust the scheme."
30mEric D. Williams