Being an NFL hopeful running back in college is a delicate balance. You're willing to take the hits and bashings to get every inch of yardage you can. It comes with the job.
And while you may be piling up yards, touchdowns, and All-American lists, NFL teams are looking at what is, in my opinion, maybe the most important stat when evaluating running backs: carry totals.
Running backs are being treated more and more like pitchers in baseball: on a pitch count. This is to protect their bodies early on. And for a running back like Montee Ball, who has already passed the 500 carry mark in his college career, that pitch count is already high enough for NFL teams...and getting higher.
As of now, Montee Ball has 568 carries in his career. That's a reasonable number for an NFL prospect, a reason I thought he'd declare a season ago. However, if he approaches the 307 carries he had last year, he'll have upwards of 800 total for his career. We saw Bernard Pierce of Temple fall last year due to his high carry numbers, and Ray Rice before him.
In fact, only four running backs in the past 10 years have finished their career with 760+ rushes that ended up being drafted. DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers, who's already on the down slope of his career and missed 20% of his career thus far to injuries, Kevin Smith of the Lions, who's been cut twice in his career and is in more of a reduced backup role, the aforementioned Pierce, and Ray Rice, who's been a model of stability but has the Ravens questioning how long he can last.
All four of those running backs, however, ended up being drafted in the first four rounds. There is hope for Montee Ball. While the value of running backs has dropped since DeAngelo Williams went round one, the value of a running back with Montee Ball's skill set has not.
As is customary with many running backs who play early and often in their college career, Ball has tremendous vision. Ball manages to maximize the delicate balance of being decisive and patient in his initial read of the hole. He read and reacts as well as any running back in college football. What makes Ball's vision so unique and spectacular is that he not only understands where his blockers are going and attacks the open holes, but he's able to decipher the 2nd and 3rd level of the defense and base his second cut off that before he even attacks fully the current gap.
Ball doesn't have elite speed, but in the NFL, that's not all that required with the NFL level vision he possesses. He gets to his top speed quickly, and consistently plays with his head up and ideal, low pad level. He's able to keep his base and lower half strong when he runs, being able to bounce through poor technique tackles, without losing his initial break into the middle of the field. Ball's strength as a runner comes from pad level, explosion, and anticipation of the defenders hit, but his lack of ideal size and upper body strength could lead to injuries in the future.
Along with elite vision, balance, and technique, Ball has also flashed the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Six of his 40 touchdowns last year were as a receiver (and one as a passer) came as a receiver. While a majority of those were on quick flares or screen passes, Ball did show the ability to catch, redirect his body position, and utilize the same vision as a between the tackles runner on the outside of the formation. His routes downfield aren't polished quite yet, but that's a skill set that develops with time in the NFL. And finally, as a blocker Ball has flashed a willingness, but doesn't always play wide enough to hold his ground against power rushers. Not asked to do it a whole lot, that's another skill set that can develop quickly in the NFL with a willingness to be physical.
NFL teams surely will love Ball's NFL ready skill set. He will remind many NFL teams of Ray Rice, another carry-riddled, smaller built runner with elite vision, balance, and bowling ball running style. Ball's hope to be a first rounder may be a long shot, even though he has the talent and credentials to warrant the pick.
I'm sure the Ravens are happy with their second round grab of Ray Rice. The Jaguars are two with their second round selection of smaller built Maurice Jones-Drew. And if he can stay healthy, a second round team will find their feature back in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Eric Galko covers the NFL Draft and NFL whole as the Director of Scouting for OptimumScouting.com, and will be writing an NFL Draft profile for Crystal Ball Run every Friday.
Be sure to follow him on Twitter @OptimumScouting.