This is Part 6 in my 10-Part Second-Year Running Back Series, using NFL Game Rewind to analyze each sophomore back's rookie-season tape. For the Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Bryce Brown, Vick Ballard, and Bernard Pierce writeups, click here:
A 2012 third-round pick out of San Diego State, Hillman entered the NFL with a running style heavily reliant on a lateral jump cut that too frequently resulted in negative runs versus Mountain West Conference competition. I recall Rotoworld draft analyst Josh Norris wondering aloud whether such a one-move-dependent back could make it in the NFL as more than a rotational player.
Since Hillman was drafted, Broncos VP of Football Operations John Elway has strongly indicated twice that he envisions Hillman as a spot-playing change-up runner.
"He's electric," Elway told the Denver Post in May of 2012. "He's got a chance to make that big play. He's a great change of pace to what we have."
In another Post item, here was Elway's backfield reassessment just before this past April's draft: "With Willis McGahee, he's our big back right now. We have Ronnie Hillman who's a 190-pound change-of-pace type guy. We look at Willis as being that big back for us right now, and then we'll see what happens in the draft." McGahee, of course, has since been replaced by Montee Ball.
As a rookie, Hillman went on to play 20.4 percent of Denver's offensive snaps and average 3.86 yards on 107 carries, including the playoffs. He caught 13 passes. Exclude Hillman's 14-carry, 86-yard Week 8 game against the Saints' No. 32 defense, and he averaged 3.52 yards per rush last season. After re-watching all 120 of Hillman's first-year touches, these were my takeaways:
While writing this second-year running back series, I've often felt the urge to begin constructing conclusive paragraphs about 70 percent through my tape review. I'm glad I didn't do that with Hillman. The diminutive if fleet-footed rookie made noticeable late-season strides as a between-the-tackles runner and demonstrated improved vision over the course of the year, recognizing cutback lanes and hitting them with burst. For most of his first season, Hillman's vision was a concern to the point that he was leaving yards on the field. He got better, and I think that's a good long-term sign.
Hillman is a fluid athlete with light feet and wiggle. Purely in terms of change-of-direction ability, he's the best sophomore back I've studied so far. Hillman runs with niftiness and excels at weaving in and out of lanes into the second level of the defense. He's a better runner through traffic than I thought. And when Hillman stays downhill and/or executes an effective cutback run, the quickness with which he gets vertical is usually impressive.
Overall, however, I think there were more negatives than positives on Hillman's 2012 film. I charted all 120 of Hillman's touches, and 63 of them (52.5 percent) went for three yards or fewer. Of his 107 carries, 30 went for no gain or lost yards. Hillman remained prone to "stuffs" and negative runs for two reasons:
1. There is no power element to his game. Hillman doesn't run with leg drive. He lacks physicality to break tackles, move piles, and add yardage to plays. Hillman is small and plays like it.
2. When holes aren't blatantly obvious, Hillman has a tendency to hesitate behind the line and become a dancer. This is a surefire way to rack up negative runs. Although he didn't do it so often that I came away believing it's an uncorrectable flaw, Hillman did not consistently attack the line of scrimmage with a sense of urgency on inside running plays.
While I thought Hillman reeled off a number of effective, chain-moving runs late in the season -- particularly in Denver's tilts with Baltimore -- the two numbered tendencies lead me to believe he is more of a scatback than potential featured runner. Based on Elway's comments, the Broncos seem to have identified Hillman as a role-player only, as well.
The Broncos also had little faith in Hillman as a pass protector, a characteristic critical to earning substantial playing time in Peyton Manning's offense. Hillman touched the ball just 13 times all season on third down, and gained first-down yardage on four. Pro Football Focus charted Hillman with only 31 pass-block attempts. I noticed why, of course: Hillman wasn't just tentative as blitzing defenders approached. He backpedaled and looked legitimately intimidated.
The Broncos used toss sweeps, swing passes, off-tackle plays, and stretch runs to get Hillman's speed on the edge, but he was inconsistent in his ability to beat defenders to the corner. I found this confusing. Hillman ran a 4.42 forty coming out of college, and burst and explosion are supposed to be his calling cards. I thought they showed up sometimes, but not all the time. Because he couldn't regularly win footraces to the perimeter, I wondered whether Hillman's high volume of short-area steps ("foot frequency") made his speed look better than it really is. Hillman appears to run with plus acceleration, but it didn't always translate to successful outside runs.
One note I made when watching Hillman was in regard to Denver's exterior wide receiver blocking. This doesn't get talked about much, but Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker jumped off the screen as run blockers. Hillman's long runs were generally extremely well blocked.
Ultimately, I didn't think Hillman showed many special qualities as a rookie. He wasn't a back who consistently stood out on tape when handling the football. There is little or no physicality to Hillman's game, and enough limitations that my comparison after one season would be to a quicker-footed version of Donald Brown.
At the same time, I am not ready to throw in the towel on Ronnie Hillman. He was the youngest player in the NFL last year. And amidst the negatives, there were enough positives that Hillman is a player I plan to monitor closely during the 2013 preseason.