Montee Ball's already-disappointing 2014 season took an unfortunate turn in Week 5 against Arizona when he suffered an injury that is expected to keep him out "several weeks." In the NFL and fantasy circles, though, the saying is to bring the next man up.
In this case, for a Denver Broncos rushing attack that ranks 29th in yards per game, led by Ball's 3.1 yards per carry, this gives Ronnie Hillman a chance to showcase what he can do as the primary running back.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Ball went down in the third quarter of Denver's 40-21 win against Arizona, and an MRI "revealed a significant groin strain." He also noted that Hillman will get the bulk of the Broncos carries, at least until Ball returns.
Hillman did nearly as much in the second half against the Cardinals (15 carries, 64 yards) as Ball was able to do in 3.5 games as the No. 1 back (55 carries, 172 yards, one touchdown).
There aren't many phyiscal differences between Ball and Hillman. Ball has more muscle at 215 pounds, but Hillman makes up for it with pure speed. The third-year runner out of San Diego State clocked a 4.45 40-yard dash at the 2012 Scouting Combine, which was markedly better than the 4.66 time that Ball showed in Indianapolis two years ago.
Hillman does have limitations that fantasy owners have to be aware of, most notably a nasty case of fumblitis. He's coughed the ball up four times in 157 career carries, losing two of them. Peyton Manning runs the offense and isn't going to call your number a lot unless he trusts you.
You also have to block and pick up the blitz when Manning is the quarterback. Hillman lacks the strength to overpower defenders, so he needs to get his body in the way just to give Manning that extra split second to throw the ball.
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Fortunately, Hillman makes up for his problems taking handoffs with the ability to create big plays as a receiver out of the backfield. He's got 23 career receptions for 188 yards in 26 regular-season games. He only has one catch this year, but that's because he wasn't being used much with Ball available.
Plus, as ESPN's Christopher Harris noted in his weekly free-agent finds piece, Hillman's running style seems to fit Denver's offensive style better than Ball did:
There's no question Hillman finds himself in the most enviable situation of our three top adds. After all, Peyton Manning just set his personal single-game record by passing for 479 yards, and receiving is what Hillman does best...I'm skeptical he's actually a between-the-tackles runner out of traditional formations, but he's a perfect fit for when the Broncos go up-tempo.
Denver's matchups the next two weeks against the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers aren't favorable for rushing yards. The Jets are sixth-best against the run this year (83 yards per game), while the 49ers are third (73.8).
This is where Hillman's ability in the receiving game becomes so important. Since he's not likely to go for 100 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, his value will come from making plays through the air. Ball had nine catches before getting hurt.
If you can't gain yards by handing the ball off, the next-best thing is using screens and short passes to keep a defense honest. Manning is a master at exploiting any deficiency out there, so touches will come to Hillman wherever they are available.
That's all fantasy owners can ask for from a backup player stepping up in a role on an offense that averages 29 points per game. Hillman is an ascending player on one of the best and most consistent teams in the NFL.
Combine results via ESPN
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