With Ronnie Hillman Hurting, Who Should Start in the Denver Broncos' Backfield?

Because of injuries, the Broncos now have four potential candidates for the lead role in the backfield, but should Montee Ball regain his lead role?

Heading into the season, the Denver starting running back gig had been all but gift wrapped in blue and orange and handed to Montee Ball, who started off slowly in 2013 before a solid second half to his polarizing rookie campaign. The Broncos let Knowshon Moreno leave town, and Ball was all set to begin his reign as the next back to benefit from a Peyton Manning-led offense.

But Ball injured his groin and has played in only four games this year, allowing Ronnie Hillman to step in and be one of the biggest surprises in the league this year.

Hillman, though, suffered an ankle injury and is either expected to miss two weeks or is day-to-day, depending on who you ask.

Now, Ball's return really just poses more questions.

Should Denver grant Ball his gig back? What about Hillman when he returns - if he even misses time? Did C.J. Anderson's production when Hillman exited in Week 10 warrant him first crack? Is Juwan Thompson a threat to the throne?

What the Numbers Say

There's plenty of conjecture to be made. Ball is "their guy." Hillman "looked good." Anderson "passed the eye test" on Sunday.

Well, as much as I like football, I'm no talent scout. And as much as I rooted for Montee Ball last year (because I drafted him in every fantasy football league), I don't really know if he truly is the best bet for a big workload in this Denver offense. That's why I like focusing on the numbers.

And at numberFire, we have plenty of them. Primarily, we have Net Expected Points (NEP), which is how we quantify how good a player is. That's not really the definition, but it's close. NEP indicates how many points above (or below) expectation a player is playing, and this helps identify which players are playing well and which players may have inflated stats based on garbage time production or who don't really convert plays that help his team put points on the board.

With that said, we should look at how each of these players have fared so far this season - while being mindful that workloads haven't been equal - sorted by Rushing NEP.

PlayerRushesRush NEPPer RushSuccess RateTotal NEP
Juwan Thompson306.120.2063.33%5.00
C.J. Anderson305.800.1956.67%14.94
Ronnie Hillman90-1.90-0.0238.89%7.10
Montee Ball55-8.08-0.1536.36%-7.27

I don't know about you, but I surely didn't expect it to shake out that way.

Hillman, despite taking over as the lead back, hasn't quite been as effective as Thompson and Anderson, who have been able to keep their carries down, which helps with efficiency.

To break it down further - because the four have dissimilar carry totals - would be a logical step. Of the 37 backs with at least 75 carries, Hillman's Rushing NEP ranks 20th, and his Rushing NEP per carry ranks 21st. He's slightly below average when compared to backs of a similar volume, but Hillman isn't just a runner - his receiving ability has been a critical factor in his performance.

However, his Total NEP ranks 17th out of the subset, so as great as Hillman has looked this season, he hasn't been as efficient as he has been productive. His perceived success may have just been a product of Ball's regrettable performance.

Speaking of Ball, of the 22 backs who have totaled between 40 and 70 carries, he ranks 17th in Rushing NEP, and he is only ahead of some extremely disappointing backs (DeAngelo Williams, Zac Stacy, C.J. Spiller, Donald Brown, and Toby Gerhart).

What about overall? Ball was a surprisingly efficient back out of the backfield last year. Well, his Total NEP ranks just 21st out of those 22 backs with similar rushing workloads, meaning that Ball really has no redeeming indicators in terms of the analytics.

The lower-volume guys, Anderson and Thompson, fare much better. Of the 24 backs with between 20 and 40 carries, Thompson ranks second in Rushing NEP and first in Rushing NEP per carry. Anderson ranks third in each. Anderson also happens to rank third in Total NEP, and Thompson ranks eighth.

There isn't much more I can say about the duo. They have been extremely efficient and productive on their touches, but with just 30 carries each, assuming that we can merely extrapolate their metrics and assuming that they could keep up their pace would be hasty and wrong.

But, really, the Broncos have a great problem on their hands. They have a workhorse back who is, at least, an average-or-so runner, and two spell backs who have been highly successful.

What's the Right Move?

It's hard to designate one player over the other four for a clear best candidate for the number-one role, but one thing is clear: the odd man out should be Ball based on the production.

Either way, the Broncos shouldn't be concerned. Hillman has already shown that he can be at least an average back, and with the second-best passing offense in football through Week 10, average is passable. As a team, the Broncos have the 11th-best rushing attack in the league even while letting the ineffective Ball handle the rock early on in the year.

Whether Hillman or Ball end up being the featured back, both Anderson and Thompson have shown the ability to be efficient low-volume runners, who at least deserve a chance to see if their productivity can continue with a higher volume.

If Hillman really does sit for a week or two, then the metrics suggest letting Ball be the main ball carrier would be the only wrong choice Denver could make.

With by far the highest odds to win the Super Bowl at this point, the best offense in the league, and the eighth-best defense, there's little the Broncos could do that would be wrong. But giving Anderson and Thompson some extra touches could help them secure the type of run game down the stretch that eluded them last year deep in the playoffs.