Entering the 2012 season, it's a bit of a mixed bag as to who will handle the Broncos' running back duties throughout the season.
Questions about the backfield include: Will the Broncos have one true running back as they did in 2011? Or with Willis McGahee nearing the age of 31, will the Broncos have a running back by committee that utilizes the strengths and talents of such players as Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball or even 2012 third-round draft pick, Ronnie Hillman?
It's safe to assume that by the time the season starts, the Broncos will carry only three true running backs. It's hard to envision McGahee being released after the season that he had in 2011. Hillman is essentially guaranteed a roster spot having been a draft pick in 2012; the last spot on the depth chart will likely be determined by guys on the fringe, such as Moreno, Ball and Jeremiah Johnson.
Having said that, it's interesting to predict and analyze what Hillman's role will be for the Broncos in the 2012 season.
Going into the season, it's safe to assume a few things about the Broncos' outlook on offense.
1. This team likely won't be the team that dominated opposing defenses with their read-option rushing attack led by the strengths of incumbent quarterback Tim Tebow. Having Peyton Manning will open up certain running plays, such as the HB Draw and the HB Screen due to his passing abilities, but expecting the Broncos to lead the league in rushing yet again is a bit too much.
2. McGahee will be 31 years old during the season. When looking at the league's top 32 rushers in 2011, just two were 30 years or older—McGahee and Fred Jackson.
It's a well-known fact that running backs deteriorate tremendously as they near the age of 30, and with McGahee having suffered serious knee injuries throughout his playing career and the Broncos utilizing a more passer-friendly offense, it wouldn't shock anybody to see McGahee's numbers drop off tremendously.
3. With McGahee likely not being able to handle the wear and tear of the starting running-back role, expect guys to "spell" McGahee often, creating a running back-by-committee system similar to the one that the Ravens implemented in 2008 to offset McGahee's injuries and ineffectiveness.
During that season, Le'Ron McClain and rookie Ray Rice emerged to create a three-headed running attack for Baltimore that saw Rice as the main running threat, McClain as the "second guy" and McGahee as the running back in short-yardage and goal line situations.
This type of attack brought the Ravens within one game of the Super Bowl.
The most likely scenario to expect this season is a running back-by-committee system. John Fox had tremendous success with this type of system for Carolina in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Even before Williams and Stewart became one of the league's most dominant rushing duos, Fox had done this before in Carolina with an aging Stephen Davis and a young DeShaun Foster. He has a history of utilizing two-headed attacks.
Arguably, he did the same thing in 2011 with McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow, with Tebow ranking fourth in the NFL in yards per carry. That was also another reason why McGahee remained so fresh throughout the season.
Which finally brings Ronnie Hillman into the equation. At San Diego State, Hillman was known as an elusive cutback runner, who lacked the size necessary to be a featured running back in the NFL. He's never been known as a guy who can push piles, nor has he ever been known as a legit receiving threat.
Hillman had just 33 total catches in his two seasons in an Aztecs uniform. He was mainly used on screens, dump-offs and wheel routes, mostly making receptions out of the backfield rather than lining up as a regular receiver.
If you read Hillman's scouting reports and watch his games, one thought immediately rings true in your head: He would be perfect in a complementary or committee role.
Could Hillman eventually develop into a featured running back as time progresses and he gets stronger? Sure. The kid is only 20 years of age as of this writing.
However, we're talking about Hillman's role in 2012. With an aging McGahee on his last legs and with inconsistent and unknown players, such as Moreno, Ball and Johnson as options, this is the perfect time for Hillman to be utilized in the Broncos offense.
Even with Manning returning after several neck surgeries over the past few seasons, the Broncos will become a pass-heavy offense. It doesn't look as if the Broncos have any fears of Manning's neck being a problem as the season nears kickoff.
But when the Broncos do run the ball or utilize the running back, Hillman can be the perfect complement to McGahee.
Hillman's strengths are noticeable in the open field where he utilizes his quickness in cutback situations. With the type of offensive line that the Broncos have, Hillman should have no problem finding open holes to create big plays with his legs.
Hillman does have weaknesses as a pass-blocker because of his small stature, and he also isn't a dependable receiving threat. So barring an unexpected improvement in training camp, Ronnie isn't your typical third-down running back.
In 2011, McGahee played in 15 games and had 249 carries. This amounts to a little over 16 carries a game.
During the beginning of the season, expect Hillman to carry about 30-40 percent of the rushing load. If Ronnie proves to be a dependable runner and that he can handle the wear and tear of being an NFL runner, it wouldn't come as a shock if he ends up supplanting McGahee as to the go-to-guy.
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