As the 2011 fantasy football season came to an end, Peyton Hillis and Toby Gerhart found their fortunes heading in polar opposite directions. Hillis would be finishing up what had become a nightmare second season for the Cleveland Browns with a Week 17 that perfectly encapsulated his entire season. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he rushed for 30 yards on 10 carries and caught one pass for minus-3 yards. A fitting end to a season marred by hamstring issues, strep throat and a cantankerous relationship with the Cleveland front office over his contract status.
Meanwhile, Gerhart was finishing up the 2011 season as the injury replacement to Adrian Peterson and amassing 70 total yards on 16 touches against the Chicago Bears. Gerhart had carried the Minnesota rushing attack admirably in place of Peterson, finishing the season with 531 yards rushing and another 190 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Hillis finished the season for the Browns posting a very disappointing 717 total yards and three touchdowns on 183 total touches. On the bright side for Hillis, the end of the season would bring to an end his contract dispute with Cleveland as the Browns were more than happy to let him walk once free agency began.
Gerhart, on the other hand, was lauded for finally living up to the expectations placed on him coming out of Stanford, after an underwhelming rookie season in 2010 as the backup to Peterson. So here we are preparing for the 2012 NFL and fantasy season, and Gerhart and Hillis now find themselves in very similar situations. Both are what folks in the fantasy football realm refer to as handcuffs to top tier fantasy running backs returning from season ending knee injuries.
Upon his departure from Cleveland, Hillis would somewhat surprisingly sign with the Kansas City Chiefs and find himself in the backfield alongside Jamaal Charles. The mere fact that Hillis has carved out the fantasy, as well as NFL career, that he has had to date is a testament to the hard work, fortitude and determination the 2008, seventh-round draft selection of the Denver Broncos had displayed. After a modestly successful career at Arkansas, where Hillis would find himself the lead blocker for future NFL running backs Felix Jones and Darren McFadden, he would burst on to the fantasy scene as a rookie for the Broncos.
Following a rash of injuries to their running backs, Denver turned to the former college fullback as their main option in the rushing attack midway through the 2008 season. Hillis would rise to the occasion, and from Weeks 9-14 he would amass more than 500 total yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. He showed terrific balance and power as a runner, while displaying excellent receiving skills, hauling in 13 receptions and one score during that six-game stretch. A grisly hamstring injury suffered in the Week 14 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs would spell the end of the season for Hillis and turn out to be the last game that Denver would win in 2008. For his rookie season, Hillis would finish with 343 yards on 68 carries, and he added 14 receptions for another 179 yards and six touchdowns. Not a bad rookie campaign at all, especially for a kid who spent his college career blocking and returning kicks for a living. The future seemed bright for Hillis heading into the 2009 season as long as he could sufficiently recover from the torn hamstring that prematurely ended his rookie season.
Well, Hillis did recover in time for the 2009 season, but unfortunately for him (and as it would turn out, the Denver franchise in general) the Broncos had fired head coach Mike Shanahan following the 2008 season and replaced him with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels had his own vision of how the Denver running game should operate, and that vision did not include Hillis. The Broncos would select Georgia phenom Knowshon Moreno in the first round of the 2009 draft, bring in free agent running back Correll Buckhalter and relegate Hillis to the bench. Following a dismal sophomore season where he would have a mere 17 total touches, 73 yards and a single touchdown, Hillis would be traded (along with a pair of draft picks) to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Brady Quinn.
The fresh start that Hillis envisioned in Cleveland began much like his final days in Denver, buried on the depth chart behind Jerome Harrison and James Davis. Used sparingly in Weeks 1 and 2, Hillis still managed to score two touchdowns and produce 126 total yards on 24 touches. Injuries would strike the Cleveland backfield rotation heading into a Week 3 contest against the Baltimore Ravens, and Hillis would be called upon to carry the load. The rest, as they say, is history. Hillis would tear up the Ravens to the tune of 144 yards rushing, another 36 yards receiving and score a touchdown, announcing his return to fantasy relevance. He would finish the 2010 season with 1,654 total yards from scrimmage, 13 touchdowns and as the second-best running back fantasy football.
Heading into last season, Hillis was a rags-to-riches fantasy story where hard work and perseverance conquer all obstacles. Oh, what a difference a single year can make. The season of turmoil that Hillis had in 2011 with the Browns took more twists and turns than a Jack Reacher novel. From the beginning of the season there was the contract situation looming as Hillis and his representation felt that the Browns should step up and sign him to a long-term deal. Oh, and speaking of representation, Hillis has had four different agents since 2010, which is a bit disconcerting. Especially on the heels of reports that it was on his agent’s advice that he sat out the Browns’ Week 3 game with strep throat, Hillis would comment afterwards that, “You feel underappreciated ‘cause you want to get (your contract extension) done and (nothing has) gotten done at this point.”
Instead of focusing on football and letting the contract situation get taken care of in due time, Hillis seemed distracted, if not even disinterested, at times last season and would miss a total of six games due to a plethora of injuries: strep throat, hamstring, hip and finally an elbow problem. Something was definitely wrong with Hillis in his final year for the Browns, and it was not all physical. Then there was the bizarre story reported by ESPN, citing multiple team sources, that Hillis had been contemplating retirement to join the CIA. Hillis would vehemently deny that there was any validity to the story, chalking it up to people trying to devalue his worth as free agency approached. No matter where the story did originate, it would add more credence to the theory that more than just playing football had been on Hillis mind during his lackluster 2011 campaign. Questions about his attitude, commitment, as well as his ability to stay healthy, would lead to a very lukewarm free agency greeting for Hillis.
So the big fantasy question is: what lies ahead for Hillis now that he has signed on to be the No. 2 running back in Kansas City? Recent comments by Jamaal Charles may lend some insight, “He’ll come in and get all the tough yards and all the pounding.” Charles would continue, “That’s the same thing that Thomas (Jones) did … he’s bringing power and explosiveness and he’s strong. He’s going to catch the ball and he’s got great hands, and I feel he’s an all-around player like me.”
OK, the best-case scenario would be for Hillis to step right into the role vacated by the departure of Thomas Jones in the Kansas City offense for 2012. Back in 2010 when both Jones and Charles were healthy, the breakdown of touches would see Charles have 275 and Jones 259. Nice, right? Hillis getting nearly as many touches as Charles will greatly increase his fantasy potential. However, that was then and this is now. When the 2012 season kicks off in September, Charles will be nearly a full year removed from knee surgery and is expected to be 100 percent good to go. He recently spoke of his return, “I’m ready to put my cleats back on and punish everybody in my way.”
In Game 1 of the 2011 season, the only contest that Charles and Jones both participated fully in, would see Charles have 15 touches to only two for Jones. The Chiefs were blown out in the game by the Buffalo Bills and had abandoned the run in an effort to catch up, but there was still a clear pattern as to the distribution of the touches between the two running backs. While awaiting full medical clearance for Charles to return to full participation, the Chiefs have given the first-team running back reps to Hillis during organized team activities, but look for that to change once training camp begins. With the departure of 2011 fullback Le’Ron McClain, Hillis will be called upon to return to the position he played at Arkansas and be the lead blocker for Charles.
While it has been widely assumed that he would step in as the immediate goal line option for the Chiefs, Hillis could find himself plowing the road for his backfield partner inside the 5-yard line. The Chiefs made an excellent decision to bring Hillis on board as a solid backup, insurance option to their star running back, and he is absolutely a fantasy option as the handcuff to Jamaal Charles. However, assuming that Hillis will be anything more than just that as a fantasy option could leave owners very frustrated. He has a lot to prove in training camp, and the preseason to remove the doubts that his terrible 2011 have left in many fantasy owners’ minds.