There has been a lot of buzz on MHR recently about the RB situation and particularly regarding a central question going into next year: Who will be our RBs? Should we use a high draft pick on the famed ‘Home Run Hitter' running back, or is a different approach a better option? It's a great discussion, and there is a lot to be said on all sides.
The Broncos nearly didn't have the pick that brought Hillis to them. They received it from Tampa Bay in the Jake Plummer trade. While Plummer is happy sticking to handball, the 7th round pick they sent us has produced an exciting and solid performer. Hillis has raised the bar for our RB group. He's going to be hard to stop and hard to top.
There's no doubt in my mind that Hillis should be our primary back going into the 2009 season. I have several reasons - body type, injury history, power, versatility and skills. Most members would agree that our back has to fit the system. I want to quantify what the system is likely to be and exactly how Hillis does or doesn't fit in to what we might expect. I'd also like to address the issue of how we might get the maximum production from him and from the position in general.
Body type: Coming from the healthcare perspective, I tend to start my analysis of the player by looking at his body type. Hillis is a 6'2", 250 lb. running back. He is in excellent shape with no obvious faults. He is timed at 2.69 in the 40, but several scouting reports have mentioned that this metric is misleading. He often ‘plays' faster than that metric, being more quick than fast and doing surprisingly well in the open field. His physiology permits him to have a bruising, punishing style and it usually takes more than one tackler to bring him down. When he falls, he usually falls forward.
Hillis put on 8 lbs. of muscle between the combine and opening day. He is a tiger in the weight room and places a high emphasis on personal conditioning, as his love of pulling his pickup truck to train while in high school demonstrates. It's also good to note that the muscles trained in that endeavor are those that will get you short yardage and break tackles, so his production should be no surprise.
Quarterback Jay Cutler said. "Peyton is a hard runner and he hits the holes hard. He breaks his share of tackles as well. It's going to be interesting to see what's going to happen..."
One aspect of the healthcare perspective is that I also look at the known psychology of the player - intelligence, work ethic and attitude. Hillis is known to be as tireless in the film room as in the weight room. He has openly stated that he had learned well and gotten better at each level and intends to continue in that during his NFL career. We have already seen his willingness to do anything at any position he is given.
Hillis was benched early in the 2008 season. We later learned from Cutler that there was a perception that Hillis had a concentration problem at first and it was seen as lacking a ‘keep your head in the game' approach. Hillis returned from it and was productive, effective and showed great promise. There was no public pouting nor any sign of anything but a willingness to mature and do better.
Obviously, as styg recently pointed out, his take-no-prisoners style has a downside. Running backs are the only players who can expect to be on the receiving end of 10 - 25 high impact tackling experiences per game. They have a high rate of injury and a relatively short professional life expectancy as a result. Hillis has a tough, bruising style - he invites, even welcomes contact. How will that affect his production and outlook?
Injury history: Hillis has a relatively short injury history, but it is probably a good example of what we might expect, given his running style. He had a tackle break the transverse processes of his 1st, 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae in 2004. That's an unusual injury, but strangely, it's less of a concern that you might think. He was expected to miss 6-8 weeks, but was back on the field after sitting out only the Auburn game (10/16/04). The connective tissue in that area holds the processes (the little bones that stick out from the main body of the vertebra) in place. It was safe for him to return, but he had to play through the pain. He did, which tells us a little about what to expect in the future.
His only other listed injuries were a deep thigh bruise on the opening kickoff vs. Alabama (9/23/06) and did not return to the game. He sat out the team's final four games vs. Mississippi State (11/18), Louisiana State (11/24), Florida (12/02) and the Capital One Bowl vs. Wisconsin (1/01/07) with calcification to the bone in his right thigh. This was also a response to his high-knee driving style of running and his apparent pleasure at the competition of contact. His injury in 2008 was a freak situation and probably does not bear on his long term status.
We can probably expect Hillis to have a certain number of these types of injuries, but to miss relatively few games due to his apparent attitude and pain tolerance. He seems to have the same disdain of physical pain as he does of opposing safeties. This will get him hurt at times. However, most of us have seen the way that injuries haunt a player who shies from contact. That won't be a problem with Peyton.
Power: This is one area we can agree on - Hillis is a powerful, bruising, punishing runner with the body type, weight and injury history to consistently deliver in both the short and medium yard gain situations. Although nfl.com dryly noted that he won't win any footraces, you don't want to catch him, either. Why does he seem so powerful? His physiology is one reason, but there is a lot more to it than that.
Hillis has good balance and body control, which leads to his excellent numbers for yards after initial contact. He has good first-step agility out of his stance and shows urgency getting to the line of scrimmage. His vision seems unusually good, and since he doesn't hesitate once he makes his decision, he is often hitting defenders before they are ready to tackle. This is a quick note from his scouting reports:
"Shows good body mechanics when building his acceleration through the hole...Has good plant-and-drive agility out of his breaks and while he is mostly a one-cut runner, he has the vision and instincts to adjust in his stride...Gets most of his initial yardage by running at a good pad level and pushing the pile with adequate power, as he can break arm tackles, especially when utilized in short-yardage carries...Has the body lean to gain additional yardage falling forward and shows good balance and determination to finish...When he drops his pads, he gets good movement and can move the chains...Uncoils and explodes on contact taking the ball up the middle and has a compact finishing style..."
That explosiveness is tough for defenders to set up for and hard to tackle. This also will bear on his injury status - he hits the defender before they hit him. Look for thigh issues from time to time. Walter Peyton adopted that unusual, high, straight legged stride with a trainer, a coach, and exercise physiologist and an orthopedic doctor to prevent knee injuries. Hillis uses a pickup and a hammering approach.
Versatility and skills: The right player for a system can improve both the system and the player's outcomes. Peyton is a multi-talented player, a fact that has led some, including Mike Shanahan, to consider him for an H-Back type of role. While I disagree, feeling that it wastes several of his strengths, I do understand. Hillis has the talent for several roles.
The first consideration is his soft and capable hands. It's more than that - He is a good route-runner, disciplined and effective. He knows when to come back to the QB if there is pocket pressure. He doesn't have the speed for the vertical routes, which would limit his role as an H back, but is excellent in the underneath game. He has shown that he knows how to slip a defender for a clean release into his routes and has both good hand-eye coordination and concentration for off-target throws. His injury was partly Cutler's fault for leaving him up too high, but he made that tough catch. It's been typical of his skill-set.
Rivals.com said: Hillis is the best athlete at this position this year with an interesting combination of size, speed, hands and intangibles.
I think that summed it up well. Even as a pure fullback, he was the second rated in the draft and some scouts had him going in the 2nd round. Scout.com had him as the 78th ranked player in the draft, and we got him at 227. If you consider all that he can do from the RB slot, he may end up being the steal of the draft.
Oddly, blocking isn't his best skill, and that may have also impacted why he was benched for a while. He needs work on his hand placement, which was at times inconsistent. One area that didn't need work was his enthusiasm, being quick to look for someone to block in the second level. He has been too quick to cut block over his career. He also has had a problem at times with getting into a ‘funk' after a bad play, but he seems to be overcoming it.
The System: I'm not prescient, and I don't know what McD is going to do. I do know a little about the NE system. They like a receiving back to take the short pass. They don't tend to look for the home run, but use the run effectively and in good balance, although the pass has dominated their offensive thinking. Hillis fits well into what we've seen from NE in the past.
As far as the Broncos history, Turner and Dennison being retained obviously bodes well for continuity in the line scheme and concept of how our backs will run. Hillis did exceptionally well in his time at the position. I look for more of the same, but for McD to delight in what Peyton brings to the offensive table.
Some have suggested a 1st round RB pick to pair with Hillis. I think that it's important to point out that very few 1st round RBs make in through their rookie years successfully, in terms of injury. The position tends to be well-paid in that round, but is second only to the WR position in terms of poor outcome over a three year period. In other words - it's a major crap-shoot, and we should probably not use a 1st round pick on it until our other needs are met.
Production versus Risk: But how do we use him? My theory is that we should permit him 12 - 15 carries a game. More than that will increase his injury history and decrease his game-times, perhaps even shorten his career. He will probably need a ‘clean-out' type arthroscopic procedure on his knees around his 5th year. It's to be expected, and should lengthen, not shorten his career.
But in addition to his carries, he should get at least 2-4 receptions per game. He's a saber in the short yardage passing game. Since he gets a clean release from the defenders and runs good routes, I think that McD will connect him with Cutler on a regular, but not overly consistent basis. You won't know if he's running or receiving and that can lead to a defender's momentary hesitation that produces solid yardage for him or another player.
We should rotate him with Pittman for another 5-10 carries a game. Pittman doesn't seem to hold up to more than that, but he's also an effective punisher in the run game.
We have additional backs for the change of pace downs, and can obtain more in the mid to later rounds if need be. It's true that the injury histories on Young and perhaps Hall have to concern us while A.Aldrige is an unproven if interesting quantity. Any back additional we look for should be able to run good routes and catch well as well as juking well. Pope did well in his limitied role last season.
Conclusion: This group forms the platform for a powerful and consistent running attack with substantial additional yardage via the short passing game. Once that is considered, using an early pick on a low-probability player doesn't seem our best use of funds.
The argument for a Moreno is that he is a rare find, and I agree. I believe that San Diego will be taking one of the top backs - Moreno or Wells - in the 1st round unless LDT agrees to restructure his contract at a substantial loss to him. However - the fastest way to lose a matchup is to try to play to your opponent's game rather than making him play to yours. We should have excellent production at minimal additional cost from our RB position. While Moreno can be a game changer and that should never be overlooked, I don't see the total production from that position to be substantially different whichever back is in place.
The odds on any 1st year back - including Moreno - finishing the season uninjured is poor. We can look at McFadden, Jones, Steward and Mendenhall, to name a few, as backs who were supposed to tear up the league before the league tore them up. With the quality of our tight end production being high now, and our receivers being one piece away from an elite unit in terms of depth, Hillis is the best bang for the buck we could ask for. IMHO, it's quite a bang.