Lance Ball finished the 2011 season as the third down running back for the Denver Broncos, as well as the primary back up to Willis McGahee. Stepping in for an injured Knowshon Moreno, Ball put up a career high 96 yards on 30 carries in a week ten victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The question fantasy owners must concern themselves with now, is just where does Ball fall into the Denver running back plans for 2012? Will the flashes of promise he showed in his limited action last season equate into Ball being worthy of having his name called on fantasy draft day?
The Broncos rode the wave of "Tebowmania" to a playoff berth last season, a thrilling upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wildcard round, and then a reality check beat down in the divisional round by the New England Patriots. Denver would finish the 2011 season with the number one ranked rushing offense, leading the league in both rush attempts and rushing yards. Could the Broncos actually continue to confound NFL defenses in the 2012 season with Tim Tebow , and their spread/option offense? Fast-forward to April 2012, and those questions have been rendered moot. Tim "Don't call me a wildcat quarterback" Tebow and his circus are now in New York (so very fitting), and Peyton Manning is now running the Denver Broncos offense. What effect these changes will have on the fantasy value of Lance Ball, make determining his draft worthiness that much more interesting.
The mere idea that Lance Ball is a name worth considering as a fantasy running back for the 2012 season is a testimony to the perseverance that Ball has shown since entering the league in 2008. Ball enjoyed a moderately successful 4 years at Maryland, where he amassed 2,487 yards rushing, another 301 yards receiving, and 26 touchdowns. The St Louis Rams would sign Ball as an undrafted free agent in March of 2008, then release him in September of the same year. This would mark the beginning of the Lance Ball "practice squad tour" that would see Ball have brief stints in Indianapolis (2008/2009), where he would make his NFL debut with a 13 carry, 83 yard performance in week #17 of the 2008 season; then Tennessee (2009), before being signed by Denver in November of 2009. Of course, in keeping with his career arc, the Broncos would waive Ball on 9/21/2010, and resign him to their practice squad two days later. Ball would finally get a real taste of NFL action in the 2010 season for Denver, appearing in 10 games and rank third on the team with 158 yards on 41 carries, he would also add 3 receptions for another 16 yards.
The roller coaster ride that was the 2011 season for the Denver Broncos-- with the injury to Moreno, and the run heavy, spread-option offense led by Tebow-- would combine to finally offer Ball the chance to contribute in Denver. The Broncos would log a staggering 546 rushing plays in 2011, totaling over 2,600 yards on the ground and 11 rushing touchdowns. In the regular season, Ball would carry the ball 96 times, average over 4 yards per rush, haul in16 receptions for another 148 yards and score 2 touchdowns. He did lose a pair of fumbles in the 2011 regular season and that is a concern since he had only a total of 112 touches. In two playoff games that the Broncos would play last season, Ball would add another 17 carries for 55 yards and a single reception for 6 yards.
In determining any fantasy value that Ball may have moving forward there are two main factors to assess, his spot in the Denver backfield rotation for 2012, and the offensive scheme that the Broncos will employ with new quarterback Peyton Manning. Denver has tendered an exclusive rights offer to Ball ($540,000), so there does appear to be a roster spot available for the versatile running back. The latest reports on the health of Knowshon Moreno have indicated that the former first round pick out of Georgia may not be ready for the start of the 2012 regular season. A February DUI arrest, possible suspension from the league and as to date an underwhelming NFL career, leave the future of Moreno a question mark heading forward in Denver. A trip to the PUP list, suspension, or better yet, an outright release are possible for Moreno, and would definitely enhance the chances Ball will have to be a contributor next season in fantasy football. Another factor that works in favor of Ball is that Willis McGahee will be entering his ninth season in the league and will celebrate his 31st birthday in October. McGahee, as well as every running back for the Broncos last season, had a resurgent year and finished with 1,250 yards from scrimmage in the regular season, with 5 touchdowns. The clock is ticking on just how much longer McGahee can be a workhorse back in the NFL, and securing the number two spot in the Denver running back rotation, could potentially land Ball in a very fantasy friendly situation. However, securing that number two position in the rotation is going to be a very difficult task for Ball. There is a reason why he has bounced from team to team, and has had to wait for an injury, and a run oriented, college style offense to get a chance to log extended playing time. Lance Ball does a lot of things adequately, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, is a capable between the tackles runner, and can be a load to bring down. He does not have the athleticism to make defenders miss in the open field, or the lateral speed and acceleration to get to the outside. There are reports coming out of Denver that second year running back Mario Fannin will get the chance to play a major role in their offense in 2012. Fannin was a training camp darling last season before injuring an ankle, clearing waivers and spending the season on IR for the Broncos. Fannin is arguably, a younger, stronger and faster version of Ball, and that does not bode well for the chances of Ball securing a prominent role in the Denver offense. Factor in any potential running backs the Broncos may draft next week, they are thought to be looking for a big durable complement to McGahee, and the future gets even bleaker for Ball.
The theme for the Denver Broncos heading into the 2012 NFL season is 'Out with the new (Tebow), and in with the old (Manning). The Broncos tied with the Houston Texans in 2011 for total regular season rushing attempts with 546, averaging 4.8 yards per carry in the Tebow led spread-option offense. The Denver running backs carried the ball a total of 410 times, and Tebow added another 122 rushing attempts, finishing as a team first overall in rushing yards with 2,632. Simply put, those days will be a thing of the past with the arrival of Peyton Manning. A look at the last two seasons that Manning played in Indianapolis, in 2009 the Colts finished 31st in rushing attempts, 32nd in rushing yards, and in 2010 they would finish 28th and 29th in the same two categories. Make no mistake about it, Denver will let Manning determine what offense he wants to implement, and Manning loves to throw the ball. In 2009 and 2010 combined, Manning did throw to his running backs a total of 164 times, completing 125 passes for 3 touchdowns. Balls ability to catch the ball out of the backfield may help him secure a roster spot, but the overall drop in rushing attempts that is inevitable for the Broncos in 2012, can only negatively impact his fantasy potential.
As the Denver Broncos roster looks right now, there is an argument to be made that Ball is a draft worthy, handcuff to Willis McGahee in 12 team leagues. However, with the NFL Draft looming, the prospects of a younger player like Fannin overtaking him on the depth chart, and the arrival of Peyton Manning, the Broncos roster will definitely look different come fantasy draft day. Lance Ball is a serviceable NFL running back, but he is NOT WORTHY of being drafted as a fantasy option in 12 team leagues in 2012.