Should the Green Bay Packers have interest in Ronnie Hillman?
As word keeps circulating about Ted Thompson “sniffing around” the possibility of adding former Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman to the roster, one could ask what’s the upside in bringing in the unrestricted free agent?
The upside is there since Hillman is only 24 and has very little tread on his tires with merely 452 carries on his odometer. He is also coming off a career season in which he gained 863 rushing yards and scored seven touchdowns.
The speedy, 5-foot-9 back is a smooth runner with the ability to accelerate and pull away from defenders once he gets passed the opponent’s second level.
On paper, the San Diego State product appears to be a player on the rise who should be able to help out several teams in a committee and/or complementary role.
And yet, here we stand in April, nearly a full month after the start of free agency, and the young weapon is still looking for a dance partner.
Chances are, Hillman may very well end up re-signing with Denver, but if he was such a vital part of the offense, shouldn’t he have already been locked up by now?
Hillman, while blessed with considerable physical ability, has been an underachiever since coming out of the Mountain West Conference as an underclassman in 2012. He couldn’t crack the starting lineup in his first two years and while he has shown flashes, the scat back’s success has never been sustained.
Four years after being a third-round pick, Hillman remains a work in progress who may already have reached his personal peak.
At 195 pounds, Hillman plays as if he’s 30 pounds lighter by constantly going down at first contact. While no one ever expected him to move piles like Jerome Bettis, one does not need to be a Brahma bull to find small creases on inside running plays and to explode for positive gains of six to 10 yards or more (see Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, etc.).
While the smaller Hillman was a more effective back than C.J. Anderson at the start of 2015, much of that was due to the latter’s toe issue, which severely limited him.
However, from Week 8 on, Anderson outperformed his backfield mate by averaging 5.46 yards-per-carry versus Hillman’s 3.43.
That trend continued in the Broncos first two post-season victories, as Hillman earned the worst elusive rating among running backs (9.3), according to Pro Football Focus, by forcing one missed tackle on his 28 touches. Anderson’s score, conversely, was 29.4 due to his four forced misses on 35 touches.
As for the Super Bowl, well, Hillman’s struggles continued with a five-carries-for-zero-yards stat line. Anderson, as we all may remember, stole the show with 90 yards and a touchdown.
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The point of this article isn’t to prove that Anderson was the superior player all along. If Green Bay would ever seriously consider bringing Hillman in the fold, it wouldn’t be with expectations of him ever putting the offense on his back.
His primary role would be as an extra set of reliable hands in the backfield. Hillman is sometimes characterized as the type of pass catcher who can make things happen underneath.
Reality paints a different picture … one where the one-time Aztec caught a paltry 50-percent of his targets in 2015 while averaging 5.2 yards-after-the catch (YAC). An average that pales in comparison to 2015 rookie backs, such as T.J. Yeldon (8.1), Melvin Gordon III (7.9) and Duke Johnson (7.8).
If that weren’t enough, Hillman has had ball security issues throughout his pro career, which led to him being deactivated in 2013. Coming into the 2015 season, No. 23 had five fumbles in 246 carries, or one fumble every 4.9 totes.
James Starks has also been known to let a ball slip through his hands or mishandle a catch he should make in his sleep. But what you get with Starks is a more physical brand of running and big yards after the catch — an average of 11.5 yards to be exact.
For these reasons, Thompson should set his sights elsewhere for a running back … which he probably is.
TT has made his one grand free agent splash move of the offseason in getting Jared Cook under contract. Reeling in more free agents would only jeopardize the amount of compensation picks Green Bay could be rewarded in 2017.
There will be plenty of specialty backs available in Day 3 of the upcoming draft. Ones that won’t include the type of baggage Hillman would bring to Packerland from the Mile High.