The 31-year-old starting running back for the Denver Broncos is hurt. Willis McGahee lasted 10 games before spraining his medial collateral ligament and fracturing a bone in his right knee. McGahee was averaging about 100 yards per game playing second fiddle to Peyton Manning in Denver’s offense.
It might seem like a significant blow to the offense because McGahee is expected to be out six to eight weeks, according to Mike Klis of the Denver Post. With six weeks remaining in the regular season, McGahee could miss a few weeks of the playoffs, and there’s no guarantee he will be 100 percent if he is able to return. The Broncos need to proceed like he will be out permanently.
The expectation is that rookie running back Ronnie Hillman will get the bulk of the carries, but he might share the load for pass-blocking reasons. What the Broncos will soon find out is that Hillman should be on the field, and he brings another dimension to the offense. Given the opportunity, Hillman will make the Broncos forget about McGahee altogether.
McGahee is averaging 4.4 yards per carry this season, but so is Hillman in games in which he has at least 10 carries. Hillman also only has one fumble in 59 touches, while McGahee is fumbling every 40 touches or so. Hillman and McGahee both have four plays of 20 yards or more this season, but Hillman has 134 fewer touches.
This isn’t complicated. Both running backs are likely to get you the same yardage production on a per-carry basis, but one running back has fumbled less and broken more big plays. Did I mention one guy is a decade younger than the other? The Broncos are going to be just fine with Hillman in the backfield.
Given the options, Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno are no more or less a liability in pass protection than Hillman. It’s not like the running back is expected to pass block on every passing play. According to ProFootballFocus, McGahee was asked to pass block just about five times per game in the first nine games. That’s five plays out of approximately 70 offensive plays per game.
Let’s not forget that Hillman is also a rookie and is likely to improve as he gets additional practice and game reps. For example, Hillman missed a wide-open running lane on a 2nd-and-goal run against the Chargers.
Hillman tried to run outside and ended up running right into a defender that was blocked (blue line) instead of running through the wide-open running lane (yellow line). This is a very correctable mistake. Hillman will learn over time to take the positive yards that the blocking and defense gives him and will actually help him break long runs.
McGahee is a smart, experienced running back that would follow his blockers and gain positive yardage even if it wasn’t a big play. Hillman is still learning to use his blocking, and of his 49 carries, 15 have been for fewer than three yards (31 percent).
However, McGahee is averaging 16.7 attempts per game, and Hillman is averaging a long run every 16.3 attempts. If Hillman is given the carries that were previously going to McGahee, he’s going to explode for at least one long run per game, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks one for a touchdown.
There are plays that McGahee can’t make that Hillman can. Take, for example, this 21-yard run against the San Diego Chargers.
The blocking sets up perfectly to get Hillman to the outside, and even McGahee would have been able to get to the edge with this kind of blocking.
Once Hillman was to the outside he had two options: bounce the play further outside or turn it back up the middle. Demaryius Thomas can only realistically block one of the defenders.
Hillman’s speed takes over, and he forces the defense to take safe angles just to make sure he doesn’t score. McGahee is incapable of getting these extra yards to the outside. Quentin Jammer had to take an extremely deep angle to bump Hillman out of bounds (red line). If Hillman had been McGahee, Jammer would not have had to take such an extreme angle (blue line) and the play is likely stopped after only a few yards.
As long as Hillman learns to take the easy yardage to keep the chains moving, he’ll be a greater asset to the Broncos than McGahee. Hillman was always the plan going into 2013, and the Broncos will now just have to expedite it.
There will be some growing pains for Hillman, but it’s probably best that he gets opportunities to work on his flaws in real game action. Hillman will have to develop in blitz pickup and learn not to bounce everything outside, but his presence automatically makes the Broncos more dangerous on offense. It’s probably safe to say that prospect makes the rest of the league shudder a little bit.
Considering the Broncos basically wrapped up the AFC West in Week 11, the Broncos can afford the development time for their third-round pick. Once Hillman is up to speed, you can expect big things from the speedster.