Ronnie Hillman entered his rookie season with an uncertain role after being drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round (67th overall) of the draft last April. Willis McGahee was coming of one of the best seasons of his career in 2011 and 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno was still the mix despite coming off a torn ACL in his right knee.
That uncertainty extended into the regular season, as Hillman was inactive for the first two games and had five or fewer carries in five of the first seven games he played. A productive game in Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints (86 rushing yards on 14 carries) showed his potential, but a clogged depth chart led to at best inconsistent playing time from week-to-week.
McGahee went down with a torn MCL in his right knee in Week 11 against the San Diego Chargers, opening the door for Moreno and Hillman to see more playing time over the rest of the regular season. Moreno was the back that emerged as the Broncos’ workhorse with 20 or more carries in five of the final six games, while Hillman only reached double-digit carries once in that span as fumble issues kept him on the sideline.
But Hillman got an opportunity to shine in Denver’s Divisional Round game against the Baltimore Ravens after Moreno was sidelined by a knee injury of his own, and performed well with 22 carries for 83 yards along with three catches for 20 yards. If a single positive can be taken out of the season-ending loss for the Broncos, Hillman’s performance qualifies.
The Broncos are still likely to have a stacked running back depth chart next season, with McGahee and Moreno under contract and Jacob Hester possibly in the mix after being signed late this past season. Lance Ball may also return to Denver, but he is slated to become a restricted free agent.
But that does not mean Hillman won’t get an opportunity to earn a significant role, since McGahee is 31 years old with a history of knee issues and Moreno has clearly been an underachiever thus far in his career. As a side note, reports suggest Moreno avoided a serious injury in last Saturday’s game and McGahee could have returned to action if the Broncos had made it to the AFC Championship Game. So health should not be a lingering issue for either guy by the time offseason work begins.
Even with McGahee and Moreno healthy and likely to return to the Broncos, I think Hillman’s fantasy value is on the rise. Owners in deep dynasty leagues can feel fortunate if they chose to use a late pick on him last summer and have the ability to keep him heading toward next season. If he can fix any lingering ball security issues and prove he can hold up as a pass blocker, Hillman’s overall skills seem like a good fit for a Peyton Manning-led offense.
The buzz out of Denver regarding their running back rotation during the offseason and training camp will be worth the attention of fantasy owners, and Hillman’s upside potential alone is enough to make him the most intriguing option in the group.