Does Ronnie Hillman Deserve a Bigger Role in the Denver Offense?
This eclectic group consists of some of the great one-hit wonders of the past two decades -- three running backs who rose to greatness for but a brief, passing moment and a band from the late nineties that produced a song capable of making even the most rationale individual question their sanity after hearing the chorus repeated over and over again.
If you were of an age to have attended a school dance in the late 90s and had the misfortune of hearing Tubthumbping play on a seemingly endless loop for three hours, we feel your pain.
It's saddening to see one of the bright spots from the last half of the 2014 season preparing to join the ranks of this illustrious group. Denver Broncos starting running back C.J. Anderson was one of the top running backs drafted in fantasy coming into this season, and for good reason. Anderson posted a Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play of 0.10 last season, good for second among running backs with at least 160 carries.
For those unfamiliar with the site, NEP is our signature metric. It allows us to help quantify the amount of points a player contributes to his team compared to how he would be expected to perform.
Already a quarter of the way through the current season, Anderson has arguably been the worst running back in the league. Of the 42 running backs to register at least 30 carries this year, Anderson ranks dead last in Rushing NEP Per Play with a dismal mark of -0.29.
Sadly, the film has looked even worse for Anderson. Due to a string of minor injuries, he has looked hesitant and lacked burst through the hole.
Time for a Change
The reliance on Anderson has led to a horrifically bad start for the Denver running game, currently sitting in 31st place in our rushing rankings.
It’s not often a team has the type of quality option at backup running back that would allow them to move away from a player like Anderson -- who while unproductive thus far, is immensely talented. However, Denver is one such team.
In stark contrast to Anderson’s dismal Rushing NEP per play and his sluggish, plodding running style, we have current backup running back Ronnie Hillman. Hillman sits 10th in the league in Rushing NEP per play with a stellar 0.08 and has looked electric at times, most notably on his 72-yard touchdown run in Week 4.
A bit of a disappointment early in his career, Hillman finally performed up to expectations last season and claimed the starting job from a struggling Montee Ball. For a brief stint, Hillman looked like the answer at running back in Denver.
Playing as a three-down running back, he displayed the quickness and burst that can make him so dangerous. Over the course of the year, Hillman posted a very respectable Rushing NEP per pllay of -0.01, good for 16th among running backs with at least 100 carries. Running the ball isn't exactly efficient, so slightly negative scores aren't uncommon at all.
Despite his early success, nagging injuries eventually forced him to miss time and allowed Anderson to step in and claim the starting job.
Possibly due to those previous injuries, the Broncos have seemed hesitant to ramp up Hillman’s usage this year. Even with Anderson’s struggles, Hillman has had no more than 12 touches in any game this season.
After his big Week 4 performance, the Denver staff may have finally changed its tune regarding his usage though. After reviewing Hillman’s performance, coach Gary Kubiak proclaimed that Hillman “deserves more touches” and called him the “offensive player of the game”.
Can a Change at Running Back Save This Offense?
While Anderson's play has certainly been disappointing, this offense has other issues to be concerned with as well.
Denver's patch-work offensive line has struggled mightily this season. Per Pro Football Focus, after Week 4 their offensive line has graded out as the 20th best line in the league, after finishing up last season as the league's 10th best unit.
Due in part to the team's inability to run the ball, Peyton Manning and Denver's offense have struggled as a whole. Through Week 4, they reside at 26th in Adjusted NEP per play.
While the offensive line is certainly to blame for a portion of the running game's problems, Hillman has run behind the same line as Anderson and posted a Success Rate of more than double that of what Anderson has managed. For those unaware, Success Rate is a measurement meant to capture the percentage of runs that result in a positive NEP.
An increase in positive rushing plays should help to open up the offense for Manning and the receivers as the defense begins to show a bit more respect for the rushing attack.
When Will the Change Occur?
Based on the previously referenced comments from Kubiak, it's entirely possible we could see Hillman begin to act as the team's primary ball-carrier starting this week when Denver will take on the struggling Oakland Raiders' defense.
While the way to beat the Raiders is through the air -- they are currently 30th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play -- they are also middling against the run and should provide ample scoring opportunities for the Denver offense.
If we do see the change occur this week -- similar to last year when Hillman took over for Ball in Week 5 -- we may not see Anderson be given the chance to re-assume his role as the primary ball-carrier this season. When provided with an opportunity to function in a lead back role previously, Hillman has been very productive.
Through Week 9 last year, when Hillman went down with an injury, he was 14th among running backs with at least 75 carries in Total NEP: this despite playing sparingly over the first three weeks of the season and being on bye Week 4.
While Hillman may not possess the elite upside of Anderson, his ability to provide some semblance of a threat in the running game will allow this offense to function closer to how Kubiak and Manning had envisioned it coming into the season.
Hillman has been the more productive back and looked better on film dating back to the pre-season. There is concern regarding his checkered injury risk, but Anderson has proved that he is just as injury prone.
It's time for the Broncos to give Hillman a bigger share of this backfield and allow Anderson some time to attempt to get as healthy as he can for the stretch run.
If you're in a position that you need to choose between the two this week, we currently project Hillman to out carry Anderson, but give the overall edge to Anderson due to his role in the passing game.
Due to Oakland's inadequacies on the defensive side of the ball, Kubiak may opt to provide Anderson one more chance to establish himself this week. However, the time for Hillman is near.
If you're an Anderson owner who wasn't able to handcuff him with Hillman, then sit back, think happy thoughts and take a listen to this little masterpiece from fellow one-hit wonder Marky Mark (again, for our younger demographic, you may be more familiar with him by his current title: Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg).