I have the unique distinction of correctly identifying the past two running backs that the Denver Broncos drafted before they were drafted. Go ahead, start calling me Mel Kiper the Third.
Those two running backs, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, are now competing to help the Broncos on their quest towards a third Super Bowl. Both are about the same age and both have different expectations placed on them.
For Ball, he has plenty of time to live up to his Terrell Davis hype. Unfortunately for Hillman, despite being the same age as Ball, his time is running out.
When the Broncos used a third rounder on the relatively unknown San Diego State Aztec, fans instantly wrote him off as a wasted pick.
His rookie season results did not help his case. Hillman was hardly used in his rookie season. He found himself stuck in the third spot behind Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno. This was partly because of his terrible pass protection and his weight dropping down to 180. He did manage 330 yards on 85 carries for a 3.9 average and 1 touchdown. And he also filled in admirably for an injured Moreno in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens (AKA the game that never happened) with 22 rushes for 83 yards. Sure he did not have a monster game but that is not bad for a seldom used 21-year-old rookie being thrown in against the dreaded Ravens’ defense boosted on steroids on a freezing cold night in January with playoff pressure.
Alas it does not matter in Broncos fan’s eyes. They see Hillman as a bust (how can a third rounder be a bust?) and have already moved onto better things. This is why training camp and preseason are extremely important for Hillman.
Hillman’s best shot at a roster spot is to prove to the coaches that he can keep his 195 pound weight up and be a great alternative to the emerging Ball and the veteran Moreno. His roster spot is actually not in too much danger. He is a young back with potential and a cheap salary. The kind of players our front office specializes in. He also has stayed relatively healthy thus far which is extremely important with Moreno’s glass body still hanging around.
What Hillman needs to focus on is gaining playing time. If he doesn’t step up this offseason then he could get lost behind a player like Ball. The fact that McGahee was cut further improves his chances of gaining more carries. But it is extremely important that Hillman takes advantage of this opportunity. If he is able to focus on learning the playbook (an absolute necessity if you plan on earning Peyton Manning’s trust) and on improving his pass protection then you will see Hillman challenge for carries. Luckily for Hillman, John Fox loves using running back committees so he should get plenty of chances.
Of course Hillman’s shortcomings also stem from how he was used last season. Hillman is a fast back that needs space to get started. If he gets that space then watch out, he is gone. Ramming him up the middle is not going to gain you anything (that 3rd and 7 still haunts me) but swinging him outside or giving him a screen pass can provide great results. The Broncos should adjust to his playing type when he is out there and see what he can do.
That is why I think Hillman deserves our patience. He is still very young and is learning what it takes to survive the NFL. He was not given plays that played to his strengths and he still managed to gain acceptable stats. He also stepped up big in the game-that-shall-not-be-mentioned. I believe that the Broncos could have a three headed monster (maybe a three headed monster with a hurt hamstring. I’m looking at your Moreno) at running back to go along with their three headed monster at wide receiver. It’s up to Hillman to seize the opportunity and prove everyone wrong.