Like many of you, I was very skeptical when the Chiefs signed RB Peyton Hillis this March to a one-year, $3-million deal. It seemed like he was a pure power back who stood out on a Cleveland team bereft of any real talent and had just come off of an injury-riddled season full of off-the-field problems. He seemed like damaged goods we got off the bargain rack as an insurance policy on Charles, despite the fact he was just as likely of getting re-injured as the guy he was backing up.
I still have some of those doubts, but I finally got around to scouting Hillis a bit. Despite being on the cover of Madden (and taking the famed curse on the nose), playing for the Browns is like being in witness protection. I generally recollected that he was good, but he sounded a lot like Thomas Jones to me.
What I discovered is, first of all, no one was quite as bad as Jones last year. Literally. Jones ranked dead friggin’ last out of 56 running backs in Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating, which tracks how well a back does after first contact. Hillis also generally disappointed by that measure last year, but that likely came as a result of being the entire Browns offense in 2010. He played 90 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and was serving as a pass protector even when not getting the ball (Charles was only on the field for 53 percent of the snaps).
At the end of 2010, Brian Daboll left as the offensive coordinator and Hillis got the injury bug, plus he was likely in need of some extra recovery time after being run lame for a season and he took a big step back. So, I decided to put my NFL GamePass account to good use and watched the last game in the 2011 season when Hillis had more than 12 carries – Week 15 against Arizona. I figured this would also be a good game because the Cardinals have a stout defensive front and it would be a good setting to see how he did without counting on his O-line dominating.
I must say, I came away quite impressed. First, I think it is a great misperception that he is just a pounder. He has speed.
In his first two touches of the game he fired through the hole like a gazelle bolting from captivity for gains of 18 and 12. One would think that the biggest running back in the league (6’2”, 250 lbs) would be best when shoving through contact, but actually Hillis truly excels in the open field – so much so that they even split him out wide as a WR on several plays. He’s obviously not very shifty, but if you get him behind the ‘backers, there is simply no one who can take him down. DBs have to try to get low on him to have a prayer of tackling him, and if you watch his highlight reel, you see that he has made an art out of hurdling little guys.
Also, whatever personality issues made him clash with coaches off the field were totally absent from his demeanor on the field. He showed himself to be a fiery competitor and took responsibility for a (literal) slip-up. On a play where he was able to break outside with largely open field ahead, he tried to make a cut with his inside foot and ended up going down without contact. Immediately after the play, the cameras caught him saying to the OC “My fault, it was my fault on that one.”
I’m extremely excited to see what Daboll will do with him. Although I do think some of the things they were doing with him like splitting him out wide were largely gimmicks to mess with the defense and mask the Browns’ dreadful wide receiving corps, I do think he could get great matchups against CBs. While he may not burn them down field, he has the height and body size to fight for position on intermediate routes, and if he gets any separation he will be able to plow through a few guys in the defensive backfield.
He also has great hands for a running back. His one drop among 61 catches in 2010 made him the third most consistent receiving RB in the league. Most importantly for QB Matt “Panic Toss” Cassel, Hillis hauled in 90 percent of all passes thrown at him in 2010 – on target or not. Then, he had 453 yards after the catch.
The big question is how often the Chiefs are going to give him the ball. KC fans were rightfully outraged at the fact Jones got considerably more touches than Charles in 2010, but Hillis is not Jones.
According to an ESPN Insider article (which I, like Paddy, would not recommend you pay for), “the Chiefs likely will lean heavily on Hillis early during the 2012 season while Charles gets his legs under him.”
Pro Fantasy Focus predicts, “with the Chiefs not wanting to overwork Charles, and now not needing to, I’d expect there to be a similar split in the backfield as 2010 between Charles and Thomas Jones. I’m penciling in Hillis for 240 carries for 1013 yards, 35 receptions for 256 yards, and 8 touchdowns, while giving Charles 200 carries for 1149 yards, 40 receptions for 296 yards, and 6 touchdowns.”
I think that might be a bit excessive, but after watching Hillis run, I am convinced he is much better than a short-yardage, third-down back. I think the ratio of carries Hillis and Charles receive will likely depend on the opponent and the weaknesses the Chiefs want to exploit in the opposing defense. When we face teams with heavy-footed, run-stuffing linebackers, we can let Charles dance around them or burn by them. If we’re up against a finesse team with coverage linebackers, we can let Hillis run them over.
Earlier the conversation had been about getting appropriate depth for Charles should he go down again, but I think the Chiefs may have actually gotten what they hoped they would get by picking up Thomas Jones in 2010 – a genuine two-headed monster.
And, since the offense will once again be going through the run again, I think it is very likely that Hillis could end up becoming the free-agent signing – not only of the Chiefs’ offseason – but of the League, if both stay healthy.