When the Broncos selected Ronnie Hillman in the third round this year, most believed he would play second fiddle to Willis McGahee for at least this year, if not longer. After all, McGahee's rugged style fit head coach John Fox's preferred style of running game, and Fox is notoriously loyal to veterans.
The reality is that it is impossible to anticipate how Fox's previous strategies will carry over to a team with Peyton Manning. McGahee might have been the best answer with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at quarterback, but he doesn't seem like a great fit with Peyton Manning. Let's not forget that Hillman was drafted after the Broncos signed Manning, and they were clearly eager to have him, moving up in the third round for the privilege to do do.
The chorus of voices at least leaving open the possibility of Hillman starting continues to grow. First, ESPN 102.3 Insider Cecil Lammey said right after the draft that he wouldn't be surprised if Hillman replaced McGahee as the starter by midseason.
CBS Sports' Rob Rang wrote that Hillman "can be much more" than a complement to McGahee in late May. Rang also praised Hillman for being a "much more complete back" than he is given credit for, and said if McGahee struggles to produce this year and Hillman gets a bigger opportunity, he could be one of the "real steals" of the 2012 NFL Draft.
This week, former NFL scout and current ESPN analyst Matt Williamson told AFC West blogger Bill Williamson (no relation) that he also thinks Hillman could take over for McGahee this year. I agree with Williamson that Hillman's fit in the stretch play-based running game in a Peyton Manning offense is much better than McGahee's.
Hillman's detractors may point out the report from Mike Klis of the Denver Post that Hillman got "nowhere near" the first team in the team's recent mini camp. Let's see if that trend continues through training camp. Hillman obviously has a lot to work on, as does the whole offense in a transition to a Peyton Manning-led attack. If Hillman sits atop the depth chart at running back when that work is done during the season, we won't be able to say that no one saw it coming.