The past few offseasons I scouted a number of players entering their fourth, fifth and sixth seasons. It was popular, so I wanted to continue this series during the 2015 off-season. Many of these players are commonly discussed, but we too often misunderstand what type of players they are now. While few players make big strides in years 1-3, by a player's 4th year they should have progressed in a number of areas. With that mentality I wanted to approach my study of these players like an NFL scout would a rookie, looking back on the most recent season's game film and then writing up a scouting report. By doing this I feel the Bronco fan base can create a more up-to-date picture of what these players strengths and weaknesses are instead of relying on what we remember from their early careers.
I'm going to be using the CBS Sports player profile outline, since it's so robust and even used by NFL.com now. They break the players skills into a variety of categories and then give them a score for that category by looking at every snap they play. For each player I'll try and do my scouting with either a member of an NFL team staff or a someone from a reputed scouting site. Our method is straightforward with me watching every game and snap while my partner does this separately. Then at a later date we watch two to four games together and compare notes. Following this session we assign a score for a variety of categories depending on the position. For example the average NFL starter at any position will be a 7, a 9 would be a Pro Bowl or All-Pro level player while an 8 is a very good or above average starter. A 6 is an area of concern while a 5 is likely reason to be benched. This is a methodology I've been working on and perfecting it these past few years.
As always I wish I could include more clips but since these articles are so long anyways, including more than one or two plays would only increase the length to unmanageable. I apologize for the fast speed of the gifs, I know it may take a few watches to get what is going on, but it's much more effective than excluding them, so huge thanks to Mike for creating them.
*This isn't a predictor of future success. It's an assessment of their ability last season; it's how they performed in the past.*
Athletic Ability: Hillman is easily the fastest back the Broncos have had since Clinton Portis, possessing great speed both in terms of his short area quickness and straight line ability. He's very light on his feet with a quick first three steps to quickly reach his second gear.
While he is very light for a running back, he is surprisingly strong. He won't drag many people but the miracle of momentum is speed is equally as valuable as weight and on more than one occasion I would pause the play thinking it was over only to unpause it and see him hit a linebacker and force him back for an additional yard. Hillman is a good athlete, small but powerful for his size. Fast but not run away fast. Overall he's a good talent to have.
- GRADE: 7.2
Football Sense: Coming from the very intelligent runner in Knowshon Moreno to this year's stable of running backs was quite the shock, in 2013 Moreno actually helped Peyton with the blocking assignments. But we have to remember that Moreno's football IQ was among the best I've ever seen, so for Hillman to not make the same calls is understandable as many running backs don't make these decisions. A running backs football intelligence is measured largely by two things, their ability to understand the blitz, call and pick up the right defender. Secondly it is demonstrated by what hole they run through. We'll start with this second point. Many running backs are in systems that they are assigned a rushing lane and if that lane is closed, they are unable to adjust. We saw this in Montee Ball last year. Others like Moreno are extremely patient, finding the ideal hole and rushing through it. Hillman falls between these two extremes. Due to his speed he hits his gap very quickly but has the vision to see his lane and adjust. Now he isn't the patient runner but he has a great jump cut to adjust. Some of his best runs came on improvisation where he turned his run into a counter when his gap closed up and he saw the alternate route available.
Returning to the blocking sense, this was an area Hillman was inconsistent. Now to be fair Peyton requires a lot more of his running backs than most quarterbacks so not being at his level isn't a huge knock. But it should be noted that Hillman did make mistakes on who to block or often looked the wrong direction, allowing the defender to get by. Now this wasn't every time, during the week 8 San Diego game he made some very intelligent decisions and rapidly adjust his blocking, but it did happen more often than I liked.
- GRADE: 7.1
Acceleration/Burst: This is likely where Hillman has his greatest strength. Those first three to five steps is where Hillman really shows that explosion. While he is fast in a straight line, he's not that lightning fast, lacking that 3rd gear. But Hillman can cover four yards as fast as anyone. This is the reason that of Hillman's 106 attempts only three were for a loss greater than one yard, he gets to the line of scrimmage very fast. His break to the hole is exceptional and his open field stop and go, while no Reggie Bush, is very nice.
I wish I could say more but I can't say much more than he's got very good short distance speed, while not exceptional, he's got this category well covered.
- GRADE: 7.9
Instincts/Balance: Another area that Hillman succeeded at was great spacial awareness and physical adjustment. Many running backs tend to get tunnel vision as they run, like many quarterbacks, and seem to lack the sense of where defenders are. This is a skill that Hillman seemed to posses, watching him run he was rarely blindsided by a defender chasing him down or coming from another angle. Because of this Hillman was able to use his short area burst to force defenders to take bad angles, which lead to him breaking a number of tackles. Now I do want to point out these aren't muscle breaking tackles, instead it's the defender wrapping up his ankles or legs and him maintaining his balance and continuing onward.
This is a very underrated aspect for a running back to have in their tool belt, few have it in spades and while Hillman isn't an expert when it comes to his, he's not Barry Sanders, he's quite agile and has good mental acuity.
- GRADE: 7.6
Inside Running: An area I considered a weakness for Hillman entering the season, he seemed to improve in this area as the season went on. While not that inside bruiser, due to his size, he actually was consistent as an inside runner because of his ability to get to the line of scrimmage and good vision. Averaging over 5 yards per carry between the tackles, his looseness evading tacklers allows him to succeed as an inside runner where normally he failed in past seasons. One of Hillman's best runs of the season came inside against the 49ers.
- GRADE: 7.4
Outside Running: This was an interesting area to study since it's seen as Hillman's strength but he actually struggled. The biggest issue here though wasn't just with Hillman who usually has the speed to get outside, it had to do with the struggles of Clady, Clark/insert RT, and Julius had with blocking. On over 40% of his outside runs he had contact at or before the line of scrimmage. It was really hard to judge him in this area in 2014 because of that but we still did. He showed the acceleration to get past a tight end or the pulling guard and a quick cut when needed, but he wasn't fast enough to outrun some linebackers or blitzing safeties and did get brought down earlier than I would have liked. Again there were circumstances, but you judge a player on both effort and production.
- GRADE: 7.0
Tackle-Breaking Strength: Another stumping topic to scout, as my partner pointed out. The reason for this is that while Hillman is completely unable to break tacklers who wrap him up from the waist up, if they go for his legs, he has the amazing ability to break or slip free from them. It was very interesting how he lacks the muscle to break many tackles who wrap up properly with good form, but those who go low are rarely able to stop him. With quick footwork and excellent balance (as we discussed above), he provides some highlights.
In the end we felt both sides needed to be addressed. Hillman is not a strong runner, he won't drag defenders and likely never will. He punishes players who lack the fundamentals and is able to break most leg tackles. Take a look at this run against San Diego where the first two defenders to come in contact with him both tackle low and both lose their grip.
- GRADE: 7.1
Tendency to Fumble: For the most part the ability to limit fumbles comes down purely to coaching and willingness to put in the work to change. One of the best ways to judge a players work ethic is whether they put the work in to mastering the fundamentals and for any ball carrier there is nothing more fundamental than ball security. Ronnie Hillman has shown that he has changed, his ball security is now excellent. He runs with two hands on the ball when preparing for contact and rarely carries the ball high and wide. While he still had a fumble this season and wasn't perfect, he's shown he knows how to protect the ball in traffic as well as in the open field.
- GRADE: 7.4
Receiving Skills: While not the natural receiver we saw in Knowshon Moreno in 2013 but among the Broncos running backs in 2014 Hillman was their most fluid and competent receiving back. It's true he didn't have any huge, break away receptions or screen passes, he ran very sharp routes, caught the ball away from his body and tracked the ball from the quarterback till he secured it before turning his eyes up field.
Also one thing that set him apart was his ability to catch the screen pass in the middle of the field, something that is tricky for most running backs to become competent at since you have to know exactly when to turn. An example of this came against the Patriots in the regular season. Once the play starts he jumps to the hole to block any blitzer, when none present themselves he runs through the gap and exactly at the line of scrimmage he starts turning rather than continuing to go deeper before looking for the ball. Peyton dumps the ball off at the last second and Hillman runs upfield. Masterful play.
- GRADE: 7.7
Blocking Ability: Size is the biggest factor hurting Hillman here. He has excellent footwork, which shows the effort he's put in to improve his skill set. Combined with decent vision for spotting unexpected blitzers, Hillman has shown the work ethic and fundamentals to be a good blocker, he just lacks the size to consistently stop lineman or larger linebackers. Overall he's able to handle defensive backs and some linebackers with great skill and can at least slow down larger defenders. He does whiff on occasion, as I mentioned earlier, so I won't dwell too long on the topic, he at least puts in the attempt, something not ever running back does. This play against the Jets shows both his weaknesses (overall strength and losing initial duel) but also his strength (recovering quickly and blocking second defender).
- GRADE: 6.9
OVERALL GRADE: 7.3
Hillman has come a long way and while I don't consider him a complete back due to his size and durability issues related to that, he has all the skills to be both a successful 3rd down back but also come in for entire drives, as we saw last season. He provides agility and speed the other backs lack and has improved his weaknesses in relation to fumbles and pass protection, while I don't expect him to wrest the starting job away from CJ Anderson I do expect to see him have a solid season in 2015. Also being close to a new contract may motivate him as well.
With CJ and Ronnie as the Broncos expected starters next season, the Broncos run game should be in a good position to improve on an inconsistent 2014 and get back to 2013 levels.