Ronnie Hillman is not a special back. He never was. It’s why he was overlooked by bigger schools looking for the prototype, 5-foot-10 workhorse. He did the same thing for San Diego State that he did throughout his youth – dominate. He doesn’t leave yards on the field as he’s decisive, quick and stays low. Shifty in tight spaces, tough, and decisive to the hole – just what you want to see out of small running backs. His change of direction ability would make one think it’s LeSean McCoy in a different uniform. He’s got big play ability, but unlike most diminutive backs, he’s not a lightning rod. However, he’s an asset between the tackles.
Like most rookie running backs, Hillman came into the league raw in regards to pass protection. In school he just wasn’t asked to do much of it, but, coming into an offseason with the fragile Peyton Manning under center, this is an essential task to getting on the field. Reports were glowing during the offseason as he’s a smart kid and a hard worker. Everything the Broncos threw at him he took in stride and made progress towards earning the coaching staff’s trust.
Then he pulled up lame before preseason Week 1, and any momentum towards a meaningful role early in the season went up in flames at that point. He missed most of August and didn’t return to full capacity until close to the opener. It was safe to assume he would be an afterthought until the second half of the season at that point. But then he was a surprise active for Week 3, as Knowshon Moreno was a healthy scratch. He’s slowly been worked more-and-more into the game plan throughout the last month.
Why should you make room for a guy that really has not done anything yet? If opportunity arises, checkout his finishing schedule. It’s littered with turnstiles for run defenses and finishes off with the infamously bad Cleveland Browns in Week 16. There’s no guarantee of a full-time job at that point, but as a third-round pick, the Broncos drafted Hillman expecting him to eventually takeover the job. Except for the August injury, he has met or exceeded expectations every step along the way.
Now, the elephant in the room, Willis McGahee, Denver’s current starter. McGahee’s 261 touches in 2011 were the most he’s had since 2007. Currently, he is on pace for 315 touches and at 31 years old it is reasonable to believe that he will fade as the season goes on. Does this mean he fades just enough to kill his value but not help Hillman? Or will it increase the likelihood he gets hurt and doesn’t recover quickly enough because he’s older?
I’m not Nostradamus, no one knows if McGahee’s on his last hurrah or about to step off the cliff, but at the price it costs to speculate on Hillman, it’ll be much cheaper to find out now that it would be to wait for something to happen to McGahee. He’s already been hurt this year, but didn’t miss a week, and he’s never been shy when it comes to the injury report in the past, so shoring up Plan B on an explosive offense would be a smart move.