by Sahil Shah
After the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon in January, the Badger faithful let out a collective sigh as Montee Ball announced he was returning for his senior season in Madison. The Badgers were already losing Russell Wilson, Nick Toon, and 2 offensive linemen to the NFL so the outlook for the 2012 Badger football seemed bleak as it was expected Ball would forego his senior year and head to the NFL as well.
His decision was criticized by the media…and I agree with them. Ball should have departed for the NFL. I admit I was selfishly happy when he made the decision to return, but I believed from the beginning that he made the wrong decision to stay.
On one hand, Ball was applauded for coming back to help the team win another conference title, honoring his parents’ wish by completing his degree and possibly winning the Heisman trophy. Badger fans had something to be really excited about as they weren’t losing everyone to the NFL.
On the other hand, Ball was scrutinized as he was already a Heisman finalist, given a 3rd-round draft pick grade, and put together one of the most statistically-amazing seasons for a running back in NCAA history (1,923 yards rushing and 39 total TDs). Most importantly, Ball plays a position that is proven to have the shortest shelf life in the NFL.
Because of this, running backs in college tend to leave early given the toll their bodies take during their careers. They take more hits than anyone else on the field each week, causing wear and tear as they get older. This got me thinking…let’s take a few current NFL RBs and see how many touches (rushing attempts and receptions) they had in college and the NFL and compare them to Ball’s current and projected college numbers.
*Note: Montee Ball numbers are projected through the end of the 2012 regular season
5 games into the 2012 season, Ball has already carried the ball 125 times with 7 receptions – certainly more than the coaches had planned as they hoped to get White and Melvin Gordon more involved. At this rate, Ball is on pace to rush 336 times with 28 receptions through the end of the regular season. His projected 364 total touches blows his 2011 season stats out of the water, as well as the NFL players’ numbers listed above.
Ball is projected to have 979 total touches by the end of his collegiate career. That is more than double the number Jones-Drew put up during his time at UCLA, albeit he was there for 2 years. That is a lot of wear and tear on an RB looking to further his career in the pros. These NFL backs are also 4 of the top backs in the NFL over the last 6-7 years. It’s hard to see Ball getting to that level in the NFL, but I just wanted to point out that these RBs played a max of 3 years in college and had far less touches coming into the league. Hypothetically, if Ball were to be standout RB in the NFL, his prime years will likely last 4-5 years (that’s my scientific guess). If that were the case, NFL teams may not want to sign Ball to a long-term contract afterward.
Scouts will likely be wary of considering Ball to be a long-time back in the NFL. I’m certainly not saying he won’t have a successful pro career – I actually think he’s the best all-around back Wisconsin has had in a very long time. Ron Dayne was the best college-type back they had, but certainly was not a prototypical running back in the NFL. He could not run over defenders as easily as he did in college and did not have breakaway speed.
But for Ball, the increasing number of touches he’ll get will lead to more hits his body will take. It’s not only the number of touches that are worrisome, but it’s also Ball’s health and other attributes that could cause his pro career to be not as successful as one would hope. This all could cause a decline in production at a faster rate than most other backs face in the NFL.
Concussions: Ball has suffered 2 concussions in as many months (plus a head injury at MSU in 2011), and we all know that is a major concern going forward. A health concern like this could cut any player’s career short at any given time.
Speed: Ball is not the fastest. As fans, we know this all too well as he’s been caught from behind several times. He is much faster than he was in 2010, but it’s hard to imagine him improving on his 4.57-second 40. Ball is a more of a north-south runner as he won’t beat you with his speed around the edges.
Durability: This is certainly a strength of Ball’s, but the real question is how long can this hold up in his career? This is his 3rd year of being the workhorse for the Badgers and certainly has gas left in the tank, but his body is already taking more of a beating than it should as he approaches the end of his collegiate career.
Aside from these concerns, I don’t see any other real concerns for Ball’s future career. If you put him in a balanced offensive system, he can certainly shine as he can also pass block and catch out of the backfield. He’s an “every-down” back which NFL teams love. I see Ball going as a top-5 RB in the 2013 draft, but where in the draft that is, I have no idea (if I did, Mel Kiper Jr. would be asking me for my NFL mock draft picks). Though, it is hard to see Ball do better than the 3rd-round grade he was given last season.
With Ball’s declining stats this year compared to his last 2 seasons (not really his fault anyway), his health concerns, and lack of breakaway speed, I unfortunately don’t see Ball having a long career in the NFL.
Though as a Badger fan, I will certainly root for him and I hope he proves me wrong.