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Ronnie Hillman Might Not Have A Place With The Denver Broncos In 2016

The Broncos re-signed Ronnie Hillman on a low risk deal this past offseason. But with the new faces, and competition behind him, does Hillman have what it takes to stick this time around?

They say the NFL stands for “Not For Long”, especially for players suiting up in the backfield. Ronnie Hillman has been a Denver Bronco for as long as John Elway has been in charge of player personnel, being part of his first draft class that included Von Miller, among others. 

The cycle of older, expensive players giving way to younger, inexpensive players would seem to be the pattern that is playing out in the battle for presumably the last running back spot on the roster. While Hillman was a valuable member to the Championship team last season and in years past, the improvements and additions the team has put in place during this last offseason may spell the end of his time here with the Broncos. 

In the famed zone blocking scheme Denver figures to lean on heavily this year, Hillman would appear to be the least naturally suited, when compared to the other backs. When I think of Ronnie Hillman, I think of another speedster in Tatum Bell. Bell was drafted as a replacement for Clinton Portis—following the blockbuster trade that landed Champ Bailey in Denver. But Bell's running style never really meshed well with Denver's scheme. Take, for example, the 34-yard run that C.J. Anderson had against Carolina in the Super Bowl. Anderson gets the handoff, veers slightly to the right, while the offensive line moves laterally, makes one cut and finds a hole on the outside shoulder of guard Evan Mathis. With center Matt Paradis getting to the second level to take on a linebacker, Anderson is able to do the rest, running through an arm tackle and breaking the play wide open.

If the Broncos had Hillman in the backfield for the same play, they probably wouldn't have had the same result. Hillman doesn’t have the same success within the team’s offensive scheme because his running style isn’t predicated on decisiveness, vision, or the downhill burst that Anderson, Devontae Booker, or even Kapri Bibbs possess.

Hillman is at his best when he can either accelerate quickly through a hole, or when he can hide behind a lineman in space. He also doesn’t have the ability to break the first tackle; all traits that don’t go hand-in-hand with a zone blocking-based run game. 

Hillman was a surprise re-signing this summer when he came back on a one-year, $2 million deal. For the Broncos, that move seemed unusual, but it was the type of low risk signing that most teams want to do with veteran players to help fortify a position group, in this case, the running backs. Combine that with his knowledge of the offense and it seemed like a quick-fix move.

Then the NFL Draft came around and the gift of the talented Devontae Booker from Utah fell to Denver in the fourth round. With Booker’s services being procured, Hillman would have C. J. Anderson, Booker and the former undrafted Kapri Bibbs all on the roster with him, all of whom are better fits in Gary Kubiak’s offense.  

Kubiak is an upfront coach when it comes to the evaluations of his players. When he was asked about the play of Kapri Bibbs, Kubiak went out of his way to compliment the former CSU Ram.

“I think Kapri is a different kid," Kubiak said. "He sees an opportunity and he taken advantage of it so far”.  

In the same vein, he also made sure to point out the improvements Bibbs has made from last year to this year.

“I think Kapri, it was obvious today that Kapri is a different player than the one I had last year," Kubiak said. "We told him he needed to be and he’s answered the challenge."

This has been one of many complimentary things that Kubiak has said about the young running back during camp. It's been a running theme.

That is not to say that Ronnie Hillman isn’t talented in his own right. He led the team in rushing last season with 863 yards and had a healthy 4.2 yards-per-carry average. Arguably the fastest back on the team, Hillman has improved in his between-the-tackles running and in his pass protection to be able to stay on the field, regardless of down or distance.

In many ways, Ronnie Hillman is a solid, if unspectacular, NFL running back. In a league where the average career is only three seasons long, there is a lot that the former San Diego State Aztec has already accomplished.

But in looking at Hillman’s place on the team, the most damning conclusion to be drawn revolves around what he hasn’t done since being drafted in 2012. Despite him having his best statistical season in 2015, he has never been a 1,000-yard rusher at any point during his career. In taking stock of his measurables, like size and speed, on paper, Hillman would be appear to be an ideal third down specialist—until you see his stats from last season. He only managed to catch 24 balls last year for a paltry 111 yards. 

Despite his high-round draft pedigree, Hillman has failed to seize the starting job on more than one occasion, or failed to retain it once it was given to him. When he was first drafted in 2012, he failed to unseat then starter Willis McGahee, despite McGahee being in the latter stages of his career.

In 2013, Hillman would come into the season with more weight and muscle added on but would be the third man in the rotation behind Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. 2014 would see Hillman start the season as the backup to Ball, only to suffer his own injury and have C. J. Anderson come in midway through the season and take control of the starting job, which he would not relinquish. 

It was Anderson’s own injury problems early in the year that led Hillman to have more involvement in the offense in 2015. That was until Anderson got healthy late in the year, proving to be the more effective back down the stretch. Factor in a crucial turnover in the AFC Championship game against New England, and Hillman took backseat for the remainder of that game and the Super Bowl. 

Ronnie Hillman started his career in Denver with so much promise. The man who would break into the league because of his speed and explosiveness now enters year five of his career no closer to the starting job than he was during his rookie season. Since the team has added backs who would be better fits in the offensive system, while also playing special teams, he doesn’t figure to have a hold on a backup job either.

Ronnie Hillman is by no means washed up and despite his time in the league, still can be an effective back for another team at some point in his career. With the collection of backs the Broncos have acquired who are better fits for the system, as well as being less expensive options, Hillman’s days may be may numbered.

With teams continually searching for fresher bodies at a cheaper cost, Hillman figures to be in no man’s land. Good enough to contribute for many teams, just not for the Denver Broncos

Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.

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