As the hits just keep on coming for the 2016 Minnesota Vikings, the phrase “next man up” is getting worn out to the point of almost becoming cliché.
On a day when the Vikings announced that Adrian Peterson is going to have surgery to repair his right meniscus on Thursday – with a likely timetable of months, not weeks to heal – and that left tackle Matt Kalil was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury, the team signed running back Ronnie Hillman.
In many ways Hillman feels like a new doctor brought into a MASH unit midway through a war. He has to get up to speed quickly and his priority is to learn whatever he can on the fly two weeks into the regular season to give the running game a boost or, at a minimum, more depth.
“I’m just coming in, learning the offense and try to help these guys out,” Hillman said. “It’s a good team and it’s a good opportunity.”
Hillman is no slouch at running back, but was the victim of a numbers game in Denver. In four seasons with the Broncos, his production went up every season. He finally became a starter in 2015, leading Denver with 207 carries for 863 yards, 24 receptions for 111 yards, and seven touchdowns. He led the Broncos with four 100-yard rushing games, including one against the Vikings when Denver beat Minnesota at Invesco Field.
But, with the healthy return of C.J. Anderson, who came on strong late in the season, and the drafting of rookie Devontae Booker, who has a similar skill set to Hillman, he became a cut casualty when Denver trimmed its roster down to 53 players.
While he clearly didn’t agree with the front office decision, he’s been around long enough to know how the NFL works.
“It’s part of business,” Hillman said. “They liked the young guy (Booker) and they made a decision to go with him. It’s part of business. You just have to understand that.”
Asked what he brings to the Vikings, Hillman said his calling card is pretty simple.
“Speed,” Hillman said. “I’ve been here (in the NFL for) five years. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’m just coming out to help the team win and hopefully go to a Super Bowl.”
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There is always a transition period for veterans who have grown accustomed to one organization and then join a new team, whether through free agency or bouncing around the league as a journeyman with enough skill to fit in different schemes. Typically, that player has the luxury of learning the new terminology and playbook from OTAs through training camp and the preseason. When it comes during the regular season, when all of his teammates have been hitting the ground running for months, it’s the simplest things that need to be learned first.
“Right now it’s just learning the plays,” Hillman said. “It’s still my first day, just hearing the new play coming can make your head spin a little bit. It will take time, but I’ll get it.”
Given his track record of being able to handle a significant workload, Hillman was working out in Los Angeles waiting for the call from an NFL team to come.
When it didn’t come in the three weeks after he was released by Denver, he tried his best to avoid thinking about the potential of that call not coming. He was confident that, given the injury rate in the NFL, some team would need a player with his skill set at some point, but it was a little concerning that it hadn’t come after the regular season had gotten underway.
“I try not to get too nervous – I wouldn’t lie to you and say I wasn’t thinking about it – but I knew I was going to get an opportunity somewhere,” Hillman said. “It was just a matter of where and when.”
Hillman’s role has yet to be defined because he literally has only been in Minnesota for hours – not days, weeks or months. Everything is brand new to him, so he is aware that early on his role will likely be limited to playing in a small sub-package that may only have a half-dozen plays designed to incorporate him.
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As he speeds up his learning curve, his short-term goal is to help out the Vikings wherever he can. Coming off a 2015 season in which he brought home a Super Bowl ring he will proudly wear for the rest of his life, Hillman is just looking to fit in and he sees this opportunity as a good one, since the Vikings have a lot of talent remaining despite being ravaged by injury in the last month.
“They’ve got a lot of young talent here,” Hillman said. “Even with the injuries, they’ve still got a lot of talent. They’re a tough team.”