Ronnie Hillman Could Be Fantasy Football's Golden Ticket in 2015

Hillman isn't the lead back on his own depth chart, but that doesn't mean he can't be a fantasy star.

We all know that every single season, one or two running backs emerge from the dregs of a depth chart or from a committee puzzle harder to solve than a Gordian Knot.

Those backs might turn into trustworthy assets for the whole season (Justin Forsett), or players you can roll with during a pretty distinct timeframe because of the backfield ahead of him (C.J. Anderson), or frustratingly-hard-to-predict weekly backups (your Matt Asiata and Branden Oliver types).

The main problem is that -- without hindsight -- we just don't know which specific players or which specific teams even will generate a fantasy-saving season.

Looking toward a good offense that has historically been good to its running backs (i.e. the Peyton Manning offense wherever he plays) is a good start, but when the first-stringer is a 24-year-old back who beasted last year, perhaps this isn't the year to expect a secondary back with largely forgettable metrics to overtake him.

I mean, according to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which compares a player's production to expectation level and indicates how many points above or below average a player performed, C.J. Anderson was the sixth-best (that is, sixth-most productive) back in the league last year, adding 17.93 points to the Broncos' expected scoring total on the ground.

On a per-carry basis, his 0.10 Rushing NEP ranked him second among 43 backs with at least 100 carries last year, settling just behind Jamaal Charles (0.11). Tack on a fifth-ranked Reception NEP (27.19) among those same backs, and you'd have to be a real piece of work to get all "well, actually..." about Anderson's 2015 season.

Well, Actually...

Look, I'm not going to lie or say that Anderson wasn't fantastic last year. That's not what this is about. He's only 24 and 204 days old as of this writing, and while that sounds oddly specific, I brought that up for a reason.

You could be C.J. Anderson's biggest fan or C.J. himself (in which case, good luck this season!), but you have to give me at least these three facts as givens: he's on the back half of his 24-year-old life, he has had one really impressive season, and he's now a borderline first-round fantasy football pick.

It just so happens that running backs who bust in the early rounds of drafts are, generally, young (with the average age of 24-going-on-25 years old) and noticeably inexperienced. Hey, that sounds like it might have something to do with all of this.

Among the top-10 preseason backs (based on average draft position) from the last six seasons, 14 of them finished as the RB24. I'll omit Adrian Peterson because his bust wasn't on-field related, but here are the relevant metrics belonging to those 13 guys -- plus Anderson -- the year before the subsequent bust.

YearPlayerRushRush NEPRush NEP/PSuccess RateRecRec NEP
2010Jamaal Charles23244.880.1949.14%4534.26
2012C.J. Spiller20725.450.1249.28%4322.34
2014C.J. Anderson17917.930.1046.93%3427.19
2011DeMarco Murray16415.960.1048.78%266.54
2008Steve Slaton26812.420.0542.16%494.14
2012Doug Martin32010.180.0340.31%4925.92
2011Darren McFadden1137.250.0641.59%197.63
2009DeAngelo Williams2164.210.0241.67%2915.26
2010Darren McFadden2224.160.0241.44%4733.48
2013Montee Ball1193.650.0350.42%205.76
2011Maurice Jones-Drew344-3.01-0.0142.73%4331.07
2012Arian Foster351-6.68-0.0241.88%403.38
2013Doug Martin128-12.64-0.1039.06%12-0.12
2012Trent Richardson267-17.80-0.0740.45%5124.61
2008Matt Forte315-18.28-0.0636.83%6437.56

See the glaring trend? Do you see it? Neither do I, and that's the point. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that Anderson had a good Rushing NEP, but so did most of these other players. (In 2014, only 11 of the 43 backs with 100-plus carries maintained a positive Rushing NEP. Running the ball is inefficient for putting points on the board, so anything above zero is actually impressive.)

Yeah, Anderson was near the top of the list, but we can't be sure if that's because of his ability (given that he has no other track record in the NFL) or a product of his offense.

Ronnie Hillman

Now that I've effectively buried the lede for way too long, Ronnie Hillman is a player to target this season for a lot of reasons.

First of all, he's apparently the "1B" running back alongside Anderson. That means that Hillman should see some snaps, which can help him in the short-term but the more important takeaway is that he should be "the guy" if Anderson underwhelms or gets injured. That in itself is more than we can say about most running back situations in the league.

It also suggests that the Broncos likely aren't dead set on giving Anderson all of the touches he can handle.

And while I know that good, average, or poor Rushing NEP from the previous year wouldn't have been a helpful predictor for those running back busts, it's nice to see that Hillman's -1.14 ranked him 16th among the 43 100-carry backs last year.

How's his receiving? Worse than Alfred Morris'. That's no joke, according to his Reception NEP per target score from last year. Hillman managed just 0.25 points per target. Morris was at 0.26. Again, Anderson's 0.62 was second among 100-carry backs.

While Hillman's underlying metrics aren't fantastic, he did score four total touchdowns last season. If he would wind up as the team's starter, he'd be the top option on an team that ran 199 red zone plays last year, sixth-most in the NFL. Even in his limited role last year, he saw seven red zone targets, tied with Anderson and tied for 13th at the position.

For a shot at the guy who will be seeing snaps from the get-go and who is one snap away from a featured role on an always-elite offense, I think a 10th-round pick is a fair asking price.