Size: Montee Ball doesn’t have elite size, but he’s not a small back. At 5’10”, 214 pounds he may not be huge but he does have strong legs, exhibits the strength to stiff arm, and has shown he can run through contact, drive his legs and gain extra yards. Ball definitely has NFL running back size.
Speed: I knew Ball didn’t have elite speed, but timing at 4.66 in the 40 at the combine exhibited some of my concerns about his straight line speed. He ran a much faster time at his pro day (4.46) but that discrepancy is pretty significant. In reality I think he’s a 4.5-4.55 guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it just means he’s not an overly explosive home-run threat. I don’t think he has the speed to get the edge whenever he wants at the next level, and that limits some of his upside. However, I certainly don’t think he’s slow and watching him for the past three years I’m confident in that evaluation.
Quickness: A couple years ago I might have given Ball a poor grade in this area, but even if he doesn’t have great quickness today he has substantially more burst and agility than he did before he dropped a lot of weight prior to his junior season. He looked like a completely different back, and I think that is worth noting in an evaluation. Do I think he has elite quickness? No, but I think he has good enough quickness to be an effective NFL back, and he has more elusiveness than some give him credit for. He has shiftiness to him that helps get defenders off balance and he has pretty good acceleration. Once again, this isn’t an elite attribute, but it’s good enough to be a NFL starter at running back in my opinion.
Running Inside: This is where the majority of Ball’s value lies in my opinion. He has an abundance of experience running between the tackles at Wisconsin and I believe that is where his best running will come at the next level as well. He runs patiently, sets up his blockers well, and decisively hits the hole when he finds one. He knows when to just make sure he gets the first down and when to look for additional yardage, he runs through arm tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage effectively, and while he isn’t elite at making defenders miss in close quarters to turn a negative play into a positive one he can provide that at times. Ball’s great balance is regularly on display on runs up the middle as he is able to sustain contact and stay up, run through arm tackles, and spin off of tacklers for additional yardage.
Running Outside: As expected, this is one area where I think Ball is going to be restricted at the next level. He doesn’t have the pure speed to outrun NFL caliber defenders to the corner and will likely be forced to look for cut-back lanes to gain what yardage he can on outside runs. His quickness and vision will help him do an adequate job of that, but at the end of the day running Ball on tosses and asking him to outrun linebackers and safeties to the corner isn’t playing to his strengths.
Receiving: Ball has proven to be a very capable receiver out of the backfield and I think he will be able to step in and contribute immediately in this phase of the game. He isn’t a great route runner and he doesn’t thrive on making contested catches in traffic, but he showed what he can do when he had Russell Wilson at quarterback his junior year. Ball caught 24 passes for 306 yards and 6 touchdowns that year, so despite only catching 10 passes for 72 yards this year it is evident that he can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. Once again he is not elite in this area, but he is absolutely serviceable.
Blocking: Coming into the year I was giving Ball a lot of credit for being a good pass blocker that was very well rounded in every phase of the game but he underwhelmed me as a pass blocker this year. I definitely think that the effort and “want to” is there, but there were absolutely times when he made a mental mistake that resulted in a pressure or when he simply struggled with technique that ended with a similar result. I think he will improve in this area with NFL coaching, but right now I’m not as sold on him as a pass blocking back as I was coming into his senior year.
Vision: I think this is one of Ball’s strongest assets and it’s what makes me confident that he will have a successful NFL career despite lacking elite athleticism. Ball benefited from having a good offensive line during his sophomore and junior seasons, but the offensive line was very bad at the beginning of this season and his yardage totals suffered as a result. However, as the line gelled and the passing game opened up a bit once Joel Stave was inserted into the starting lineup Ball had some more room to run and “shockingly” his numbers improved. I believe Ball’s vision is very good, he runs patiently, uses his blockers well to gain additional yardage, and finds cutback lanes effectively enough to be a fit in a zone scheme if he was drafted into one.
Ball Security: This is another area where Ball is excellent. He fumbled a couple times as a senior year but before that he did a fantastic job of protecting the ball and avoiding fumbles. That has a lot to do with him carrying the ball exactly the way you’re taught: three points of pressure, high and tight and he doesn’t wave the ball away from his body when he is fighting for extra yardage. One of his only fumbles I’ve ever seen was when he was diving over the pile against Ohio State this season. Had Ryan Shazier not made an amazing play to meet him at the goal line and jar the ball out of his hands it may have been yet another touchdown instead of a game-changing turnover.
Overall: I have been a Montee Ball fan for years, and watching him transition from a 235+ pound power back with limited agility and burst to a 5’10”, 215 pound workhorse has been extremely fun to watch. One of the big questions regarding Ball is the sheer amount of work he has gotten since arriving at Wisconsin, and given the wear and tear a running back takes that is very legitimate. However, Ball has rarely missed time with injuries since arriving at Wisconsin, and if he is cleared medically regarding the concussions he sustained within the last year then I won’t worry about him from an injury or durability standpoint at all. The concussions are concerning, as is the way he sustained one of them (being assaulted in Madison by a group of people), but I don’t think they will cause him to fall down draft boards. As I mentioned above I believe that Ball’s pass protection will improve with NFL caliber coaching, and once it does he will be a very well-rounded running back. He will be an effective runner with quality vision, an effective receiver with above-average hands, and an effective pass protector. He won’t ever be a home-run threat every time he gets a carry, but he will be an effective starting caliber back at the next level and barring injury I think he will provide a NFL team with 7-8 years of quality service as a starter. I don’t think he has a shot to go round 1, but I have a 2nd-3rd round grade on him personally. He’s not a star, but he is definitely a NFL caliber starter in my opinion.
Projection: 3rd round. I wouldn’t be angry if my team picked Ball in round 2, but I think given his heavy college workload, his recent history of concussions and his lack of elite athleticism that round 3 is where he is most likely to come off the board. Anyone who gets him in round 4 or later is getting a nice value.