First Down: Why Montee Ball deserves fantasy first round consideration

Americans live in an instant gratification society. We complain when our Internet connections are slow and unresponsive, demand Venti-sized iced coffees made promptly each morning and rush through dates in the hope of satisfying our libidos.

When it comes to fantasy football, we’re just as impatient.

In early drafts last year, owners circumvented Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell (pre-injury) and Zac Stacy banking on Montee Ball being the rookie running back to own. With only mediocre Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman to conquer, it seemed highly probable the Wisconsin product would seize control of the Broncos backfield in short order. After all, once acquired at No. 58 in last April’s NFL Draft GM John Elway compared him to Terrell Davis, the same Mile High stallion who fostered fantasy man-crushes from coast-to-coast during his heyday in the late 90s

No pressure.

As a result, the fantasy community went bonkers over his potential. Yahoo’s own Michael Salfino went as far as taking him with the No. 13 pick in the 2013 Roto Arcade Mock. Few drafters followed suit, but he still went at pick No. 63.8 (RB24) on average in Yahoo leagues, well ahead of Bernard, Bell and Shane Vereen. In highly competitive formats, he went considerably earlier, especially in drafts conducted in the first half of August.

Naturally, though, he lowered many into the red.

Moreno, largely because of his reliability in pass protection and ball security, emerged from the fray and quickly established himself as Denver’s lead horse, delivering a top-five fantasy season at the position. Ball did provide glimpses of his upside (e.g. Week 13 at KC; 13-117-0). Overall, he totaled 4.69 yards per carry, generating 54.7 percent of his yards after initial contact. However, his No. 48 ranking in per game average forced many to choke down crow. Those who endured the hardship proclaimed “Never again,” failing to put his season into the proper context (i.e. He’s a rookie who played for a Hall of Fame QB with high standards).

But don’t drop the Ball.

There are several widely believed myths about Montee, knocks which cast him in an unfair light. Here are the three biggest:

Myth 1: Because of poor ball security, he shouldn't be trusted carrying fine china, babies or oblong objects wrapped in brown leather. It's always difficult to erase early season memories. On his first 33 touches, Ball put the pill on the ground twice, one in front of large national TV audience in the Manning Bowl. As a result, he quickly gained a butter-hands reputation. However, he only coughed it up one time over his next 140 grips. In college, that streak was barely a drop in the bucket. While at Wisconsin, he didn't fumble until his 803rd career touch. Let that soak in for a moment. His early hiccups were fluky. When it comes to holding onto the rock, the man is the definition of reliable.

Myth 2: When oncoming rushers shoot through the gap, he morphs into Casper, the sack friendly ghost. Several scouts questioned Ball's ability to pick up the blitz entering last season's NFL Draft. More of a cut blocker, it was an area of concern. Throughout training camp and the preseason, he occasionally struggled identifying and blowing up the oncoming rush, missteps that practically cemented Moreno's stake as RB1. However, being the worker bee Ball is, he greatly improved as the season wore on. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he graded out higher than Knowshon in pass blocking. At first he experienced a few growing pains, but he developed into a trustworthy protector.

Myth 3: The University of Wisconsin is known for its epic parties, beautiful scenery and Bo Ryan, not for cranking out high-quality NFL running backs. Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun, Ron Dayne – admittedly, the Badgers haven't birthed a bunch of All-Pros. But, to be fair, Bennett and Dayne did contribute meaningful production at times. Remember, the gifts 'Candy Cane' Dayne left under the tree during his stirring fantasy playoff run with Houston in 2006? And recall Bennett was a viable RB2 in 2002 with the Minnesota Vikings when he finished with 1,647 total yards and six touchdowns. Essentially, the sample size is too small to dismiss a player because of college affiliation. Keep in mind Ball ranks fourth in Big Ten history in rushing yards and holds the conference and NCAA record for career TDs with 77. He isn't your average Badger.

Bottom line: Drafters who buy into the above myths will stupidly bypass a sure-fire RB1 in drafts this summer. The offensive environment and lack of meaningful competition (Enough with the C.J. Anderson is 'God' chatter, haters), practically rubber stamps a 300-touch workload. Peyton Manning, who's sung Ball's praises this offseason, has the utmost confidence the rusher will take the next step. History supports that notion. As industry colleague Denny Carter recently pointed out, primary RBs who've played alongside No. 18 averaged 1,518 combined yards and 10.4 touchdowns per season, an output nearly identical to what DeMarco Murray, the eighth-best rusher in fantasy, accomplished last year. And, again, that's just the average. Ball, like Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai and Moreno before him, will see few defenders in the box. A top-five season is on the horizon.

The idea Ball is a high-risk pick in Round 1 is yet another laughable untruth. Last year was last year.

Bury the hatchet.

Fearless Forecast (16 games): 279 carries, 1,301 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 386 receiving yards, 13 total touchdowns

Well, well, well … look at what the cat dragged in. Miles Austin, whose hamstrings were thought to have irreparably disintegrated years ago, was signed off the street by the Cleveland Browns Thursday, a move clearly tied to the reported 8-16 game suspension Josh Gordon is facing. Injuries have plagued the veteran in recent years, but the still-only-30 year old will be given every opportunity to start opposite arm-fractured Nate Burleson in Kyle Shanahan's revamped, run-centered offense. Earl Bennett and prime PPR sleeper, Andrew Hawkins, are expected to duke it our for slot duties.

The acquisition was wise. Austin's early-career explosiveness is long gone, but his 6-foot-2 frame provides Johnny Manziel (or Brian Hoyer) with a large, experienced target. If, and that's an enormous IF, he can prove healthy, the ex-Cowboy is sure to garner 5-7 targets per game until Gordon's return, enough looks to make him a viable end-game draft pick in 12-team leagues. The upside: He defies the odds, stays on the field and emerges as a fairly valuable WR3. The downside: He snaps tendons in training camp and is forced into an insurance sales career.

Speaking of Gordon, it's high time the NFL has finally expressed willingness to revise the league's drug policy toward marijuana and HGH testing – long overdue. The fact softer punishments are issued for drunk driving and assault are both archaic and disturbing, which the NFL is finally starting to realize. If the NFLPA and league agree to terms before the season begins, Gordon, despite falling under the old statute, could be looking at the lighter side of the 8-16 game layoff. That happens, and he would be the biggest mid-round steal in fantasy drafts. In two mock exercises conducted this week, the troubled wideout was selected at No. 94 and No. 112 overall. Highway robbery. Potentially.

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