Peyton Hillis was one of the biggest surprises in the NFL last season.
On 270 carries, he rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns, and quickly became one of the NFL's leading rushers and a fantasy football owner's dream.
Hillis was the first player to grace the Madden Cover as the nominee of a popular vote by the fans; in other words, the guy is an absolute stud.
This season Hillis is looking to replicate his 2010 form, but as we've seen in Cleveland and around the NFL before, will Hillis be a one-and-done?
There are a lot of factors that will play into Hillis' performance this season that he really has no control over. The first of those factors is the Browns' offensive line.
What looked like a very astute line took a huge hit last week when Eric Steinbach left the team with a season-ending back injury. Steinbach was a consistent veteran player who got the job done, and helped left tackle Joe Thomas to open up huge holes for Hillis and the Browns running game.
When Steinbach went down, the Browns were left searching for answers, which eventually lead to Jason Pinkston.
Pinkston was a left tackle at the University of Pittsburgh who was the Browns' fifth-round draft pick in the 2011 draft. Going from a veteran presence to a rookie on the left side of the line could cause problems for Cleveland. Pinkston is going to have to step up in order for Hillis to have a successful season. With defensive tackles and ends blowing up holes in the middle, Hillis is going to have a hard time running anywhere.
While the left side of the line may be in bad shape, things couldn't have been worse for the right side of the line last season. Veteran right tackle Tony Pashos went down early in the season, and was replaced by veteran John St. Clair, who played very poorly to finish out the year. On top of his performance, the right guard position was a mess as well, with Billy Yates playing less than stellar most of the time.
This season, the Browns are looking at a refurbished right side. Pashos is back, (hopefully injury free), and the Browns just recently signed Oniel Cousins to a deal, as well as adding John Greco in the offseason. Whether it's Greco, Cousins or Shawn Lauvao, who the Browns drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft, Cleveland should be in much better shape on the right side.
Alex Mack, the center, is one of the best in the NFL and can definitely help both sides.
That being said, I believe the offensive line may help Hillis to regain his 2010 form. Yes, Steinbach is a huge loss, but with a revamped right side and Joe Thomas helping Pinkston on the left, I think the offensive line is going to be an advantage to Hillis this upcoming season.
Colt McCoy's performance could also play a big part in Peyton Hillis' 2011 season. If McCoy continues to show poise and maturity far beyond his years, as well as the ability to move the ball very efficiently down the field, defenses will not only have to look out for the burly "Winnebago," but also McCoy and the air attack as well. With Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs and even Hillis, the Browns passing game could be a big weapon that can only help Hillis' production.
Next, we take a look at the defenses that Hillis will be facing during the season, and they prove to be much less intimidating than last season.
Of course, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are still on the schedule, which is unavoidable, but other than those two divisional foes, Hillis should be able to run all over the soft run defenses of Arizona, Oakland, Indianapolis, Seattle, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Cincinnati. The Browns' schedule definitely favors the running attack, which is yet another plus for Hillis.
What we haven't taken into account is that, before this season, teams really didn't have too much tape on Hillis. They were more focused on Jerome Harrison in the first part of the season then they were on Hillis, and in the latter half of the year they still didn't have too much tape or time to focus on No. 40.
This season, teams playing the Browns will do all they can to be as prepared as possible to take him on. I think this simple fact alone is going to slow down Hillis. It may not stop him in his tracks, but it's going to slow his production if even just by the smallest margin.
Hillis has all the tools in place to repeat his 2010 campaign. He has a good offensive line, an up-and-coming pass game and an easy schedule on his side, all of which are definitely advantages he didn't really have last season. The only thing that can slow Peyton Hillis down is going to be that teams are going to be prepared for him as he walks onto the field.
Hillis is going to shake the "Madden Curse" and have a decent 2011 for the Browns.