Should Ronnie Hillman Continue to Start for the Denver Broncos?

With the way Ronnie Hillman has played, just how much of a role should Montee Ball expect upon his return from injury?

In back-to-back seasons, the Denver Broncos have attempted to establish Montee Ball as their lead running back. Neither attempt has gone well. In 2013, there was speculation that the rookie would be the starting running back, but as it turned out, he was not ready yet. Knowshon Moreno took over the starting gig and had a fantastic season. Ball played relatively well in a complementary role later in the season but never established himself as a integral piece of the offense.

Fast-forward to 2014. Montee Ball is “the guy.” Moreno is in Miami, and all signs are strongly indicating a nice year for Ball is in order. He was being touted as a late-first, early-second round fantasy pick in August and his career arc was seemingly trending upward. But, after three games of mediocrity and ineffectiveness coupled with detaching his groin from the bone in the third quarter against the Cardinals in Week 5, Montee Ball has been the biggest running back bust of the first two rounds.

With his replacement, Ronnie Hillman, playing very well and picking up the slack from Ball’s woes, is there still a place in the Broncos offense for Ball upon his return? Is Hillman really this good? Let’s explore.

A Deflated Ball

Montee earns just 3.1 yards per carry this year. In a Peyton Manning offense, which usually sees only 6 or 7 defenders in the box at a time, Ball mustered 3.1 yards per carry. That’s abysmal. The story only gets worse.

Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball both have the same amount of carries this season (55). Their production and efficiency could not differ more. Hillman has been the better running back, and it’s not remotely close.

Of the 55 running backs that have 40 or more carries this season, Ball is 44th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). Ronnie Hillman is 22nd. For those of you who may be new to numberFire, NEP quantifies a player's contribution to his team’s scoring output based on how he performs on each play versus what is expected.

PlayerRushesYardsYPCTDsRush NEP
Hillman552474.520.04 (22nd)
Ball551723.11-8.08 (44th)

Ronnie Hillman has been better in the passing game, too.

PlayerTargetsRec.YardsTDsRec. NEPTarget NEP

Beyond the metrics and statistics, Hillman has been more explosive, decisive, and dynamic than his counterpart, Ball. One reason the Broncos offense wasn’t as good as it was in 2013 was due to the fact Montee Ball was playing so poorly.

Maybe just about everyone underrated how good Moreno was and took for granted that he was an essential piece to the Broncos success. Peyton doesn’t necessarily need the world’s best or most talented running back, but when Denver’s running game is clicking, their offense is obviously just that much more lethal.

Despite being a smaller back (5’ 9”, 200 lbs) and not having a great rookie season, the 23-year-old Hillman may be in the middle of a Moreno-like explosion in 2014.

The Broncos Backfield: A Fantasy Quagmire?

Ball was initially supposed to miss anywhere from two-to-four weeks with his groin injury, and the Broncos upcoming Thursday Night Football game against the Chargers would be the third week since his injury. What can we expect going forward? Will Hillman still be the main running back? Will Ball have a role at all?

In all likelihood and logic, Hillman’s recent production should have earned him the starting gig. Maybe with the emergence of Hillman, Denver will realize Ball may not be who they thought he would be and that Hillman is the better option this year and for the foreseeable future.

There’s still a chance Montee will be involved in some capacity, and there is a good chance he will be. It’s hard to indicate what type of workload Ball will receive the rest of the season, but the best outlook as of right now is he’ll be in some sort of complementary role to Hillman, barring injury - if the Broncos have noticed just how efficient Hillman has been by comparison.

If this is the case, then Ball will be in familiar territory. Ball actually played a very similar complementary role last season to Moreno tallying 32.3% of the running back snaps and 8.5 carries per game in the Broncos final 9 games of 2013.

Will Montee Ball be more or less involved than that for Denver’s final 10 games? As a hedge, I would say Ball will initially be involved less than his 2013 workload. He just simply has not been good this season as our metrics show and will have to earn any playing time he receives for the rest of the season. Unless the Broncos are stubborn in their attempt to shoehorn Ball into the featured role, he may be destined to be a fantasy landmine.

If you drafted Ronnie Hillman super late or just picked him up a few weeks ago off of the waiver wire: congratulations. You just stumbled into an every week high-end RB2 in PPR in one of the NFL’s best offenses. If you were one of the unfortunate (like me, in one league) who spent a top-16 draft pick on Montee Ball, you’re pretty much forced to lick your wounds and try to squander any remaining value Ball may have in your league(s).

In fact, and this may be hasty but, I would have no issue with dropping Ball if you need running back or wide receiver help for any of the hot Week 8 Waiver Wire Pickups, like Tre Mason, Bryce Brown, or Odell Beckham Jr.