Montee Ball's fantasy value

Montee Ball has the opportunity to be the lead back in Denver. Will he win the job? AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

Late last season, reliability issues as a pass protector and a light frame kept Ronnie Hillman from stepping up in Willis McGahee's absence to become the Denver Broncos' bell cow running back.

Instead, it was former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno (who earlier in the season had been relegated to a scout team back) who toted the heavy load, providing sufficient production in late-season starts.

The fact that Hillman was unable to take carries from Moreno was an indication of his readiness (or lack thereof) to step into a featured role.

The Broncos invested a second-round pick on Montee Ball in this year's draft, a strong suggestion that he -- not Hillman -- would replace departed McGahee (who remains unsigned).

But early training camp buzz suggests that Hillman is making a push to assume the starting role in Denver, as he has taken an abundance of first-team reps thus far.

I'm not buying it.

Hillman is a talent, there's little denying that, but he's a talent best used in smaller doses, especially as he struggles to keep weight on his frame and lacks the requisite power to sustain the physical pounding of 250-plus touches.

Consider this: Of Hillman's 120 touches in 2012, 65 of them went for three or fewer yards (according to ESPN Stats & Information), and 29 of his 107 carries were for no gain or negative yardage.

Not what you're looking for in your lead ball carrier.

Ball, in comparison, is a zero-flash, downhill runner whose college tread and modest speed (4.66) led some draft analysts to shy away from him as an early-round prospect.

But, in selecting Ball with the 58th overall pick, the Broncos suggested that they believe in him to be a starter, likely immediately.

It's a projection, but count me among those who believe not only that Ball will be the starter in Week 1 for Denver but that he'll also be a workhorse, just as he was at Wisconsin. Among the areas in which he edges out Hillman: pass protection skills and reliability, two pillars for any running back playing behind Peyton Manning.

Although fantasy owners love the idea of drafting nearly any player who is slated to be a workhorse back on a topflight offense, we must set expectations for Ball, both in 2013 and beyond.