While several rookie RBs are joining teams that encountered difficulty running the ball last season, Ronnie Hillman is joining the NFL’s top ranked rushing offense from 2011. Denver averaged an impressive 164.5 YPG, as Willis McGahee shockingly finished eighth among all backs with 1,199 yards. But the Broncos’ rushing attack entered the offseason in greater need of additional talent at the position than it might initially appear.
First, despite McGahee’s unquestioned success, he will be entering his 10th season, and has already logged nearly 1,800 carries in his career (1,790). Also, the now departed Tim Tebow inflated last season’s rushing total by contributing 660 yards. Plus, Knowshon Moreno begins his fourth season in recovery from yet another injury, having done nothing to validate his status as the 12th overall selection of the 2009 draft.
Those factors combined to create viable reasons for the Broncos to select Hillman with the 67th overall pick in last April’s draft. He supplies them with an explosive weapon, who possesses the speed and vision to generate big plays. He is also proficient at knowing how to use his blockers, and is elusive enough to escape potential tacklers. He ran for 3,243 yards and 36 TDs in two seasons at San Diego State. Last season alone, he scored 19 times, while his 1,711 rushing yards led the Mountain West, and were the third most in the nation. He also tied for the second fastest time among all backs at the combine, by finishing the 40 in a scorching 4.45.
Hillman is 5’9” (if that) and 190 pounds, but won’t even be 21 until September. So it is reasonable to expect him to add more bulk as time progresses. While he has the quickness to be a potent weapon as a receiver, he only caught 33 passes as an Aztec, and must still prove himself in this area. It is also imperative that he block effectively, in order to participate in the offense that Peyton Manning will spearhead this season.
John Fox proved last season that he will modify the offensive strategy if necessary, and Manning’s presence will likely cause some adjustments from Fox’s usual run first mentality. However, his track record definitely speaks for itself in regards to his preference for a heavily employed rushing attack. Fox’s Broncos led the league in rushing attempts last year with 546. In 2010, a feeble Panthers offense was dead last in total offense, yet was 15th in attempts with 428. In 2009, Carolina was second with 525 attempts. In 2008, they were sixth with 504, and in 2007 they were ninth with 451. Yes, Denver signed Manning, and he will not be handing off on every down. But Fox’s history nonetheless bodes well for Hillman, along with fantasy owners who select him.
When McGahee finished one mere yard short of rushing of an even 1,200, it was easily his best production since 2007, and the fourth 1,100+ season of his career. While he defied observers who doubted his ability to excel at age 30, the questions and concerns will now surface again. He did collect 43 receptions in 2007, but has only averaged 16 catches in the four seasons since. And the total has steadily decreased each year. This could greatly benefit Hillman, if he establishes himself as a reliable target for Manning.
Hillman can’t officially be considered the Broncos’ No. 2 RB until he overtakes Lance Ball and Moreno on the depth chart. But if your draft does not occur until late August or early September, the suspense may be dramatically lessened by then. Ascending beyond Ball should not be a formidable challenge, and Moreno might not even be a Bronco by that time. To brand Moreno as a disappointment is actually an understatement. The former first round selection has only managed a grand total of 1,905 rushing yards in his first three seasons, as a procession of injuries have circumvented any chance for productivity. Last season, he appeared in just seven contests, garnering 37 carries, and gaining just 179 yards. Plus, he is currently recuperating from a torn ACL that prohibited him from participating in OTAs. The fact that Hillman was even drafted conveys a clear signal regarding Moreno’s standing within the organization.
There are a few question marks to reiterate when considering where to draft Hillman, because he must prove himself to both Manning and Fox (in whichever order that you would prefer) before he will have the chance to line up in the backfield. Ball security is a concern, as he fumbled nine times during his during his 608 career touches at San Diego State. He also must exhibit sufficient receiving skills, in order to have a reasonable chance of being involved in Denver’s passing game. That certainly applies to his blocking too, as an inability to protect Manning would keep him cemented to the sideline.
That said, the belief here is that Hillman will quickly elevate into the No. 2 slot on the depth chart, and be employed as the Broncos’ change of pace back. But to ascend beyond McGahee is too much to expect this season. Providing that the veteran can remain healthy. But if McGahee’s advancing age, and the substantial wear and tear that he continues to endure prohibit him from performing, Hillman will inherit a sizable role in the offense, with an opportunity to prove that he should maintain a reasonable percentage of touches regardless of McGahee’s status. For now, use a tenth round selection on Hillman, whose current ADP of 116 indicates that he will be there for you. And do not be surprised if he merits an earlier commitment once the Broncos’ preseason contests unfold.