Oct 6, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman (21) runs with the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Mile High Mailbag: Hillman, Ball And Latimer 2014 Expectations

Welcome to this week’s installment of the Mile High Mailbag. In this column, we answer your questions via social media on pressing matters that concern the Denver Broncos. You can read last week’s article by clicking here.

Our first question comes from Predominantly Orange’s very own Khalid Alshami.

I have a very different opinion of Ronnie Hillman than maybe a lot of Broncos Country. When he was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, I felt that he was a bit of a reach. I believed he could have been had later.

But Elway pulled the trigger and on he came to Denver. As a rookie, he did an okay job as the 3rd running back on the depth chart. He saw 212 snaps. With those opportunities, he carried the ball 85 times, for 330 yards and 1 TD. He averaged a decent 3.9 YPC. That lonely TD came at the expense of Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly, I might add.

Going into 2013 training camp, it was unclear where Hillman would fit in. Following an injury to Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno had been plugged into the starting lineup down the stretch the previous season and he played lights out, helping the Broncos’ offense to reach new heights. His versatility improved the offense in a big way. Moreno suffered an injury in the Divisional Round playoff loss to Baltimore and his timetable to return to training camp was unclear.

Compounding the issue was the fact that the Broncos had drafted Montee Ball in the 2nd round just a couple of months before camp. 2nd round draft picks come with pretty hefty expectations. So you had an injured veteran incumbent in Moreno and a shiny new draft pick in Ball. Where would Hillman fit in?

Surprisingly, Hillman ran with the 1st team all throughout camp and the preseason. His performace at the time was garnering rave reviews, both from fans and media. Everyone was seriously thinking he was going to be the starter in 2013. However, at the time, I was trying to cool everyone’s jets on that expectation because I knew that once the live bullets were flying, Moreno would be the primary back with the 1st team.

However, Hillman was Moreno’s backup. From week 1 through week 7, Hillman saw a total of 128 snaps, which isn’t bad for a player coming off the bench. Hillman’s fate took a turn for the worse when he fumbled on the goal line vs the Indianpolis Colts in week 7 that put the kybosh on a Broncos comeback victory. I don’t care who you are. If you fumble on the goal line, in the clutch, you’re going to feel the heat and likely lose some playing time. And that’s exactly what happened. Ball was plugged in as the backup and Hillman didn’t see the field again until week 16.

Hillman’s problem was that he didn’t take his demotion like a man. Like a pro. He was pouty and he was in denial. Offensive Coordinator, Adam Gase, spoke to that issue via the Denver Post:

“We’ve talked to him, (running backs coach) Eric (Studesville) and myself, as far as: ‘Hey, this is a new start to the year. Whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to build off it. We’ve just got to start over.'”

Starting over isn’t easy. But I think Hillman can do it. He is a very talented runner who now has 2 full seasons of NFL experience under his belt. He has a similar skill set as Darren Sproles. Maybe not as good of a receiver, but his body type and running style are very similar. Young runners often struggle to acclimate to the speed of the NFL game. It was no different for Hillman. And now he has to get his confidence back. I don’t expect Hillman to be a training camp casualty. Other than Montee Ball, Hillman is the only running back the Broncos have who has seen any meaningful NFL snaps. If something happens to Ball, the team will want to have a viable backup that has some experience.

Of course, C.J. Anderson, a 2nd year UDFA out of Cal, is going to be breathing down Hillman’s neck for the #2 RB, as will Brennan Clay and Kapri Bibbs.

Bibbs only played one year in Division I football in college with Colorado State. But in that one year, he led the nation with 31 TDs. He’s a real threat to make the final 53. He’s also a very talented runner. He received some very positive reviews during OTAs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos carry 4 RBs. Ball, Hillman, Anderson and Bibbs.

This is the million dollar question that Broncos Country and Fantasy addicts want answered. The reality is that the Broncos spent $15M on Emmanuel Sanders to presumably be their WR2. Sanders is a phenomenal, if inconsistent, athlete. In 2013, he was the Steelers’ WR2. Mike Wallace had left for Miami and that left Antonio Brown and Sanders as the primary receivers. Sanders notched career high stats, but many felt like he underachieved.

The Broncos hedged their bet with Sanders by drafting Cody Latimer in the 2nd round out of Indiana. The two players couldn’t be more different. At 5’11, 180lbs, Sanders is a smallish WR with elite speed and explosive open field prowess. Latimer is 6’2, 215lbs. He also has elite speed, but he has the bigger frame to make tough catches down-field and in the redzone.

With the ball in his hands, Latimer is very dangerous, similar to Demaryius Thomas. I could see him being used in the screen game very effectively. One thing that could complicate Latimer’s emergence in 2014 is his foot. He had foot surgery not long ago and is supposed to be good to go by training camp, but it has held him back some in OTAs.

Ultimately, I expect Sanders to be the starter. We’ll see Latimer on the field but I think he’ll be used in primarily in redzone looks. Peyton Manning will want to utilize his size/speed combo in the money-zone. Wes Welker’s contract is up after 2014 and that’s when Latimer will truly come into play. Sanders will likely move into the slot and Latimer will take over as WR2. But unless there’s an injury, we’re talking 2015.

A two-part question. First, we’ve talked a lot about Nate Irving lately. Following free agency and the draft, the Broncos really only have one question mark on defense and that’s Mike linebacker.

I do believe that Irving has it in him to be a good starting Mike in this league. I also believe that he has the potential to be a 3-down Mike, although many would disagree with me on that.

Regardless of what anyone thinks, Irving is getting the full opportunity to be the starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos this year. I think he’ll surprise a lot of people by taking the bull by the horns and being very productive. He’s in a contract year, after all.

Second, Montee Ball. In a Peyton Manning offense, pass protection is paramount. Obviously. If Manning can’t trust his RB to make the right reads and pick up the blitz, they won’t see the field. Ball struggled with this aspect of his game early on, but down the stretch last year, he improved dramatically. I have no doubt that come week 1, Montee Ball will be a more than adequate pass protector.

FROM ENEMY TERRITORY….

Excellent question. From week 13 on last year, Montee Ball played lights out. He averaged a whopping 6.7 YPC down the stretch. It was enough to convince the Broncos that they could let Moreno walk, despite a renaissance season from the RB out of Georgia.

Early on as a rookie, the biggest question marks surrounding Ball were his pass protection skills (see above) and ball security. But I think he more than addressed those concerns down the stretch.

He’s never going to have home-run speed, like a Chris Johnson. But the 45 yard run that he broke in week 12, on the road vs the Chiefs, showed that he can break a long one. His strongest attribute is his jump cut. And he’s excellent in the redzone, as he has an excellent nose for the endzone. He’ll get what you need in short yardage situations.

Playing with Peyton Manning certainly helps too. He’s going to see a lot of 6-man boxes. My biggest complaint with Knowshon Moreno was that he didn’t do more against such looks. Ball can and will take advantage of such circumstances, as he showed late in the 2013 season. I expect Montee Ball to end up with around 1,250 yards rushing and 10 TDs this year. Too optimistic? If Moreno can break the 1,000 yard barrier in this offense (barely), then Ball will shatter it.

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Tags: Cody Latimer Denver Broncos Montee Ball Nate Irving NFL Ronnie Hillman

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