Before NFL teams cut their rosters to 53 men the overwhelming question asked is, “Will there be any surprises?” Will there be a veteran salary dump or will a free-agent rookie play his way onto the final roster? Pondering these questions consumes media members and fans alike.
This season John Elway didn’t disappoint. The surprise cut of 2015 was undoubtedly Montee Ball, for multiple reasons.
First, Elway has rarely admitted his mistakes in the draft. Second, giving a second round pick only two years is almost unheard of. Teams have to hit on their first and second rounders in today’s NFL, and they will give those picks every chance to succeed. No one saw this coming.
While cutting bait with Ball was shocking, it isn’t the story of training camp; the story of training camp was Ronnie Hillman.
Hillman’s performance through the preseason is the reason Ball no longer plays for the Denver Broncos. He took his game to another level, shining an even brighter light on Ball’s deficiencies. No. 23 made Gary Kubiak and Elway feel easy about only carrying three backs.
The transformation of Hillman should come as no surprise to those who were paying attention last season. Hillman was thrust into a starting role in week five when Ball went down. And, during his four-week stretch as the starter Hillman was fantastic. He ran for 347 yards on 73 carries for a cool 4.8 yards per carry. The third round pick from San Diego State started proving his doubters wrong.
Potential has always been Hillman’s biggest enemy. His talent has always been clear as day, but it’s never translated to the field. Maturity was the part of the job Hillman could never figure out, which made his game questionable.
His size is questionable because he didn’t put in the time in the weight room. His knowledge of the playbook was questionable because he didn’t study the playbook. His ball security was questionable because he wasn’t getting game reps. But last season he turned a corner after an early season wake-up call.
Hillman’s coming out party came against a stout Jets defense in Week 6 when he secured his first 100-yard rushing game. But it wasn’t the yardage that impressed the most; it was his ability to pass block and his ball security.
When C.J. Anderson took advantage of Hillman’s injury to win the starting job, a pass-blocking back was one of the biggest things missing from Denver’s offense. A shocking notion.
After admitting in 2012 that he didn’t know the playbook, who would have ever imagined that Hillman would transform himself into Denver’s best pass-blocking running back? Very few. Hillman has become the standard for Denver’s backs when it comes to picking up the pass rush.
His story, and progression, doesn’t stop there.
Early in his rookie campaign Hillman couldn’t hang onto the football. That too is in his past. The last time he lost a fumble was October 20th, 2013.
Hillman was the Montee Ball of last year. He was the running back on the bubble that needed to play his way onto the roster. No. 23 has done that and more. He has worked on the weaknesses of his game to make them his strengths.
The intangibles – pass blocking, ball security, and a solid work ethic – were holding Hillman back in the NFL. He had the talent but he was his own worst enemy. It finally looks as if that is no longer the case.
This doesn’t mean that Hillman still doesn’t have questions to be answered.
His sample size is relatively small, he got hurt in the full-time role last year and he is still staring up the depth chart at Anderson.
Can he prove himself over an entire season? Can he stay healthy and can he continue to do enough with his opportunities to prove that he is the best back for Kubiak’s offense?
Without question, Hillman was the Broncos’ best running back through the preseason. Not only did he make releasing Ball an easy decision, he looked better than Anderson in the running game and the passing game.
Coaches always say that players earn their playing time on the field. Hillman has done just that. It was the story for the Denver Broncos in the preseason and will continue to be as the regular season kicks off.