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Why did the Broncos bring back Ronnie Hillman?

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Ronnie Hillman has some good and some bad in his game. Let's take a critical look at both using data to answer why the Broncos brought back this running back.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ronnie Hillman was drafted to be the running back capable of chewing up large chunks of yardage if given a lane to run through. There is a perception among the fanbase that he hasn't been able to consistently do this. There are many excuses offered including:

  • Age
  • Misuse by the offensive coordinator
  • Poor offensive line

I'm not going to specifically address these excuses, but I'm sure they will be the subject of much discussion in the comments. I'm going to look at what the numbers tell us about what Hillman has or has not been able to do.

Hillman has been in the NFL since 2012, so let's compare him to other RBs during that timeframe (2012-2015). Has he been able to generate long runs? In other words, has Ronnie been able to do what he was drafted to do?

First, let's define a "long" run. I chose to define that as 20 or more yards. Some people call these chunk runs because they gain a chunk of yardage. There are a fair number of RBs capable of ripping off 20+ yard runs, so here they are with a percentage for how often they get those chunk runs.

Chunk Runs - 2012-2015 RB runs of 20 or more yards

Player > or = 20 yd runs 2012-2015 attempts >or=20%
Justin Forsett 25 455 5.5%
Todd Gurley 11 229 4.8%
Adrian Peterson 45 975 4.6%
C.J. Spiller 24 523 4.6%
Andre Ellington 14 364 3.8%
James Starks 15 393 3.8%
Latavius Murray 13 348 3.7%
C.J. Anderson 12 338 3.6%
Lamar Miller 22 638 3.4%
DeMarco Murray 33 963 3.4%
Doug Martin 29 868 3.3%
Chris Ivory 21 667 3.1%
LeGarrette Blount 15 484 3.1%
Le'Veon Bell 20 647 3.1%
Jamaal Charles 25 821 3.0%
LeSean McCoy 31 1029 3.0%
Isaiah Crowell 10 333 3.0%
Alfred Morris 32 1078 3.0%
Mark Ingram 17 626 2.7%
DeAngelo Williams 17 636 2.7%
Ryan Mathews 17 650 2.6%
Chris Johnson 23 906 2.5%
Arian Foster 20 795 2.5%
Reggie Bush 13 534 2.4%
Ronnie Hillman 11 452 2.4%
Frank Gore 25 1049 2.4%
Darren McFadden 17 724 2.3%
Marshawn Lynch 23 1007 2.3%
Eddie Lacy 15 717 2.1%
Joique Bell 11 561 2.0%
Matt Forte 19 1021 1.9%
Jonathan Stewart 10 558 1.8%
Rashad Jennings 11 626 1.8%
Stevan Ridley 10 598 1.7%
Steven Jackson 10 626 1.6%

RBs with 10 or more runs of > or = 20 yd 2012-2015 included.

Adrian Peterson has the most long runs at 45 during this four-year span. From a percentage standpoint, Justin Forsett has the greatest percentage on this list, and it's not even close. It's interesting to note that most of Forsett's runs came in 2014 with Gary Kubiak as his OC.

I highlighted C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Anderson is near the top of the list while Hillman is near the bottom (though not the worst). Note that Hillman's company on the bottom is almost all large punishing RBs.

Wasted Runs - runs that gain the offense 1 or fewer yards

Running Back 2012-2015 attempts 2012-2015 runs 1 yd or less wasted run %
Rashad Jennings 626 153 24.4%
Marshawn Lynch 1007 248 24.6%
Jamaal Charles 821 211 25.7%
Ryan Mathews 650 174 26.8%
Le'Veon Bell 647 174 26.9%
LeGarrette Blount 484 134 27.7%
DeMarco Murray 963 270 28.0%
C.J. Anderson 338 96 28.4%
Stevan Ridley 598 170 28.4%
James Starks 393 112 28.5%
Alfred Morris 1078 310 28.8%
Todd Gurley 229 66 28.8%
Matt Forte 1021 297 29.1%
Chris Johnson 906 269 29.7%
Mark Ingram 626 187 29.9%
Eddie Lacy 717 216 30.1%
Steven Jackson 626 189 30.2%
Andre Ellington 364 110 30.2%
Frank Gore 1049 318 30.3%
Reggie Bush 534 162 30.3%
Lamar Miller 638 194 30.4%
Darren McFadden 724 222 30.7%
DeAngelo Williams 636 196 30.8%
Jonathan Stewart 558 172 30.8%
Doug Martin 868 270 31.1%
Adrian Peterson 975 304 31.2%
Arian Foster 795 249 31.3%
LeSean McCoy 1029 328 31.9%
Ronnie Hillman 452 145 32.1%
C.J. Spiller 523 168 32.1%
Latavius Murray 348 112 32.2%
Chris Ivory 667 215 32.2%
Justin Forsett 455 151 33.2%
Joique Bell 561 187 33.3%
Isaiah Crowell 333 128 38.4%

I'm calling runs that gain one or fewer yards "wasted runs." You can see above how all of the RBs from the first table compare in terms of how often a hand-off to them gains the offense little or nothing. I have removed short yardage carries for first downs or TDs from this analysis so RBs are not getting penalized for being "third and goal" or "fourth and 1" stalwarts.

Again in the table above we see that Anderson has outperformed Hillman in terms of not having wasted runs. While Anderson is not in Marshawn Lynch's league (yet), he's also nowhere near the king-of-wasted-runs Isaiah Crowell. We noted in the first table that Jennings is similar in his game to Hillman; it's interesting to see that Jennings has the lowest percentage of wasted runs on this list while Hillman has one of the highest. It does not hurt that Jennings is 20-30 pounds heavier than Ronnie, so he can break tackles in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage more easily.

So why did we bring Hillman back?

The first table showed that Hillman is not very good at getting chunk runs. The second table showed that he is not very good at making people miss in the backfield and/or breaking arm tackles to make a two (or more) yard runs out of nothing. Those two are the bad.

But here's the good.

The first reason we brought Hillman back has to be cost. He was relatively cheap to re-sign, although a rookie RB would have been cheaper. Hillman's cap number for 2016 is $2 million. A late-round rookie would have a cap number of roughly one quarter of that.

But what Hillman brings that a rookie doesn't is experience, particularly experience in the Kubiak/Dennison offense. That is the second reason, and it's tied closely to the third - Hillman was arguably the best of our RBs at blitz pickup last season, but he was never able to generate much as a receiver out of the backfield (his career-long gain of a catch is 29 yards, and he has one career-receiving TD - I should have put that in with the "bad").

Hillman's best quality is his ability to run outside the tackles. That, in my opinion, is why he was re-signed.

Outside Runs 2012-2015 - Top 20 RBs Shown

RB Att Yds Y/A TD
Jamaal Charles 221 1481 6.70 10
Ray Rice 53 337 6.36 2
C.J. Anderson 48 299 6.23 3
Adrian Peterson 172 1069 6.22 7
Kendall Hunter 57 352 6.18 1
Le'Veon Bell 77 468 6.08 3
Justin Forsett 58 351 6.05 2
Andre Ellington 101 562 5.56 2
DeAngelo Williams 116 644 5.55 3
Chris Ivory 126 698 5.54 5
LeGarrette Blount 50 276 5.52 2
Reggie Bush 87 477 5.48 7
Marshawn Lynch 153 829 5.42 5
Mark Ingram 114 612 5.37 5
Ryan Mathews 188 977 5.20 4
Shonn Greene 64 320 5.00 0
Ronnie Hillman 109 538 4.94 4
Darren McFadden 161 794 4.93 3
Khiry Robinson 63 310 4.92 6
Ahmad Bradshaw 89 436 4.90 0

minimum 40 carries, only RBs shown.

The table above shows the top 20 RBs in the NFL in terms of yards per carry on outside runs during the timespan. Jamaal Charles is elite when running outside the tackles, but Anderson is no slouch.

Again we see Anderson has outperformed Hillman, but Hillman is still near the top of this list (unlike the other two tables where he was near the bottom). The worst RB on the full list (not just the top 20) is Alfred Blue, who only averages 2.44 yards per carry on outside runs.

So do you agree the re-signing of Ronnie Hillman was a smart move by the Broncos' front office?