The Denver Broncos parted ways with running back Willis McGahee and drafted Montee Ball with the 58th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, which prompts the question of what will become of Ronnie Hillman, the running back the Broncos drafted with the 67th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
If Hillman isn’t ready to carry a significant portion of the running game in 2013, there’s reason to believe he never will. Is Hillman ready for the spotlight? That all depends on if Hillman is the running back we saw for the majority of 2012 of the one that showed up in spurts toward the end of the season and in the playoffs.
For most of the season, Hillman didn’t look ready to be anything more than a change-of-pace running back. If actions speak louder than words, the Broncos made it pretty clear that they didn’t think Hillman was ready when they gave the starting nod to Knowshon Moreno after McGahee was hurt last season.
Not only did Hillman not earn the starting job, but he also didn’t see an increase in touches after McGahee was injured. Instead, Moreno came in and carried the ball 22 times a game.
Unlike other positions in the NFL, running backs are expected to produce immediately. If a running back isn’t ready for the spotlight by his second year, he’ll probably never be ready. There are exceptions and Hillman is still young, but this is the commonly held belief.
Hillman certainly has the speed to be a successful running back, and his size shouldn’t be the concern some have made it out to be. However, there are a lot more things that go into being a successful running back than size and speed.
One of the most important aspects of being a successful running back is vision. You might think of vision as simply seeing, but there is much more to it than that. Vision is understanding and processing what one is seeing and being able to react to it.
In Week 4 of last season, Hillman carried the ball 10 times for 31 yards against the Oakland Raiders. Facing a 1st-and-15, the Broncos decided to run a draw play to Hillman.
The play is designed to go up the middle, but Hillman still has options on the play. Hillman can continue to his left, cut back into the center of the field or cut against the grain all the way back to his right.
Hillman quickly cuts and tries to take the ball straight up the middle, but the Raiders were ready for it. Defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant fight inside the blocks, and Hillman only gains a few yards.
Not only did Hillman make a premature decision, it was the worst one he could have made. Hillman should have seen that Bryant and Kelly were both in a better position to make the play up the middle than if he had taken the play off guard on either side.
Even with a hard cut to his right, Hillman would have had a chance to make a move on linebacker Philip Wheeler or outrun him to the sideline. The best decision would have been to continue to his left, where the blocking was set up perfectly for a big gain if the Broncos were to get a good block at the second level against the outside linebacker.
When Hillman sees the running lanes—as he is able to do in the open field—he’s a much more dangerous asset. In Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints, Hillman sees Roman Harper rush to the outside to respect Hillman’s speed.
Along with a good block from Zane Beadles, Hillman is able to cut up the middle for a big gain. It’s not Hillman’s size that makes him a below-average runner between the tackles, it’s his vision. It’s also important to note that Hillman fumbles at the end of the play, but lucky for him, the ball goes out of bounds.
By Week 11, it wasn’t evident that Hillman’s vision running inside had improved. On this play, Hillman chooses to cut to the outside, where the San Diego Chargers are able to stuff him for a short gain.
Had Hillman made a quick decision and run up the middle, he would have gained at least a few yards if not walked in for the touchdown. Hillman’s failure to understand, process and react to what he was seeing resulted in him leaving yards on the field.
Signs of Improvement
Despite some struggles, the Broncos didn’t give up on Hillman and continued to try to get him free to the outside. Most of Hillman’s runs were designed to use his speed and get him outside the tackles.
Late in games when the Broncos had a comfortable lead, they continued to try to get Hillman experience running between the tackles. Their commitment to giving Hillman a handful of opportunities could pay off in the long run as he showed signs of improvement late in the season and in the playoffs.
One of Hillman’s carries in overtime against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs demonstrated his progression. Hillman took the handoff from quarterback Peyton Manning and cut hard to his left, where his blocking created a huge running lane.
Hillman could have just as easily tried to go up the middle or tried to bounce it out to his right, but he would’ve been a lot less successful on the play. Hillman would have been surely stuffed up the middle and would have needed great blocking to get anything to his right.
Although the sample size was relatively small, Hillman showed some improvement. It’s worth noting that the sample was only a handful of runs and that the Broncos have a much larger sample from which to judge Hillman.
The Drafting of Ball
Not only did the Broncos draft Ball, but they were also deciding between him and Eddie Lacy. According to Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway (via Mike Klis of The Denver Post), it was a close call, and it came down to the medicals of the two players.
It could become important to Hillman that Ball was drafted over Lacy, but what’s more important was that the Broncos were targeting a running back with their 58th overall pick. It’s unlikely that ball was some sort of a value pick.
The drafting of Ball indicates that the Broncos determined they needed a running back who could carry the load. Clearly, the Broncos didn’t think Hillman was ready for a larger role after reviewing the tape from 2012.
Hillman certainly demonstrated some improvement at the end of last season, but some people believe the Broncos may have drafted Ball for reasons other than his running ability. There’s no doubting the offense revolves around the pass in Denver, so it makes some sense to believe that Hillman isn’t getting more snaps because of his pass-blocking.
What’s odd is that Hillman proved capable in his limited opportunities as a pass-blocker, and the Broncos only asked their starting running back to pass block about six times per game last year, according to Pro Football Focus data (subscription required).
It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to waste a top pick strictly to have a running back who can pass protect. If anything, pass protection should be considered a bonus and not a requirement. The offense can always switch personnel and bring in a running back who specializs pass protection in certain situations.
What’s clear is that the Broncos don’t think Hillman is ready to be anything more than a change-of-pace running back at this point, even if he showed some improvement at the end of last year.
For Hillman to prove to the Broncos that he’s ready from the spotlight, he’s going to have to look significantly better than Ball and Moreno in just about every area. First and foremost, Hillman is going to have to run the ball better, but he can certainly help himself by doing well in pass protection and showing off his ability as a receiver.