With yesterday's signing of Peyton Hillis to a rumoured 4 year contract, I looked over my notes from draft week and considered what we saw of him through the early camps. For some reason, I have the impression that Hillis may turn out to be one of the Bronco’s best picks in ths year’s draft. I can’t prove this – it’s more the effect of a lot of little things that seem to add up to a heck of a player. But I digress.
Hillis was born on January 21, 1986 in Conway Arkansas where he attended high school and where he resides to this day. In a sense, that greatly describes Hillis – if there is one word that sums up his life and his approach to football, it might well be ‘consistent’. He is a hard worker, a man who recognizes the gifts that he has been given and who works with single-minded determination to maximize them and to use what he has in any way needed to help himself and his team. Wherever you place him, he will attempt to excel. And this is the kind of character that the Broncos are filling the depth and range of this year’s team with – the kind that makes us pant for the start of training camp.
While he was still in high school, Hillis caught the eye of people across Arkansas and the nation. A powerful natural athlete, he earned All-State honors in baseball, but it was already in football that he had the greatest skills. As a SuperPrep All-American, Hillis was rated by Max Emfinger as the best fullback in the nation while at Conway High School in Conway, Ark. He was also listed as the third-best prospect in the state by The Morning News." A highly recruited player at Conway High School, Hillis was named the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Offensive Player of the Year as a senior. He received Fox Sports Net "All-South" first-team honors and won the Landers Award, recognizing the top high school football player in Arkansas. Hillis added consensus All-Conference, All-State and All-Arkansas honors as a junior and a senior. Highly sought after and recruited, Hillis decided to stay in state and closer to home.
During his time at Arkansas, Hillis was utilized as a fullback, H-back, tailback, tight end, wide receiver, kickoff returner and punt returner, but a couple of things stand out. His 118 catches broke the old Arkansas career-record for running backs of 94 receptions by Gary Anderson (1979-82). His 537 receiving yards in 2007 set a school single-season record for running backs. He added 12 rushing TDs, averaged 10.3 yards per punt return and amassed 2,624 all-purpose yards over 44 games. All of this while paving the way for Darren McFadden’s accomplishments and Felix Jones’ run at making All-American.
I noticed that in his draft information there was a contradictory emphasis on his blocking skills. Without question, to hear his teammates tell it, he got the job done. Kyle over at BroncoTalk noted, "his blocking ability leaves something to be desired." But I also heard, "A punishing blocker, a powerful runner and a natural receiver." "He gets into an opponent and gives movement with the ability to consistently seal the corner." His blocking paved the way for the Razorbacks to lead the South-eastern Conference and rank fourth nationally in rushing (286.54 yards per game."
From nfl.com: Can finesse block with good hand placement or hunker down and knock defenders back when leading on sweeps...Will get bounced around some lead blocking up the middle, but uses his shoulders well in attempts to widen the rush lane...Takes good angles into the second level to execute cut blocks...Can adjust on the move and is aggressive looking for targets to hit.
And yet there was: "Does a lot of unnecessary cut-blocking." "Lacks the pure strength to be a lead blocker." And so it went. This kind of contradiction would follow him into the draft rankings.
The Broncos nearly didn’t have the pick that brought Hillis to them, receiving it from Tampa Bay in the Jake Plummer trade. While Plummer looks like he’ll never play a down for Tampa Bay, the 7th round pick they sent may, ironically, have given them one of Cutler’s main defenders.
Scott Wright, a former pro scout, wasn’t originally so high on Hillis, citing the oft-referenced, often debated lack of sufficient blocking skill and acumen and gave him only 2 stars out of five. However, Wright listed his strengths as, "Very athletic...Above average timed speed...A fantastic receiver...Smart with good awareness...Displays good technique...Has a non-stop motor...Extremely versatile weapon...Hard worker with top intangibles. Offers a lot of special teams potential" Later, in his post-draft review he added this,
"With their final pick of the draft the Broncos chose Arkansas fullback Peyton Hillis, who in my opinion should have gone at least two rounds earlier. A super versatile player who is able to run, catch and block, Hillis is just what the NFL is looking for at the fullback position these days and if anyone is wondering what kind of impact he can have just go back and watch the Hogs upset win over L.S.U. last year. Hillis may be facing an uphill battle to make the Broncos roster in 2008 and he will probably have to beat out either Cecil Sapp or Mike Bell but make no mistake about it he has what it takes to play in the NFL and could be a steal."
Scout.com had Hillis as the 76th ranked player in this year’s draft. Ironically, Eddie Royal ranked 78th. But rivals.com offered this:
"Hillis is the best athlete at this position (FB) this year with an interesting combination of size, speed, hands and intangibles."
Hillis is the kind of high character, overlooked, solid kind of player that Shanahan wants to fill his stable with. He has added 10 lb. of muscle during the off-season, and seems to understand what it will take to succeed at the next level. A beast on special teams, highly versatile and willing to go anywhere and do anything that will give the Broncos wins, Hillis may well fill the FB slot for years to come. With a year to work in and learn behind Cecil Sapp, and a chance to let Mike Shanahan do one of the things he does best and play to Hillis’ undoubted skill at receiver, the Broncos 227th pick in this years draft could turn out to be one of their very best.