When Brady Quinn was traded from the Browns to the Broncos over a year ago, people were thinking about the new direction for the Browns’ quarterback spot rather than about the fullback the Browns acquired who barely played in 2009.
A year later, Peyton Hillis is one of the better running backs in the league and the cover athlete of Madden 2012. One of the things that makes not just the NFL but all of sports so intriguing is the chance that a player will come out of nowhere to become an icon.
So who exactly is Peyton Hillis? Where did he come from and what makes him so good? To give you some idea, only he and Matt Forte were well-rounded enough to have PFF ratings above +2.0 in running, receiving, and blocking in 2010.
How He Got His Shot
Hillis was drafted in the 7th round of the 2008 draft by the Denver Broncos. He landed in the top fullback spot, and looked like a solid run blocker in his first four games. Injuries to Selvin Young, Andre Hall, and Michael Pittman forced Hillis to move to halfback for a few games. He finished the season with 68 rushing attempts for 343 yards and five touchdowns. That equated to five yards per carry with 3.1 coming after contact, and nine players missed tackles on him.
In his sophomore NFL year, the Broncos brought in Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, pushing Hillis back to the fullback spot. Using fullbacks less often in 2009, Denver only called on Hillis for 84 snaps and in those few opportunities, he didn’t look as impressive as in his first year. 2008’s 6th round pick, Spencer Larsen, converted from linebacker to fullback, and was stealing chances by the end of 2009. Hillis had become expendable.
That offseason, he was packaged with draft picks and shipped to the Browns for Brady Quinn. Cleveland had Lawrence Vickers at fullback, so Hillis was slotted in as the No. 2 halfback behind Jerome Harrison. Harrison was taking over as the full time starter following Jamal Lewis’ retirement and in Week 2 against the Chiefs, he ran the ball 16 times for 33 yards. Despite not practicing all week with a rib injury, Hillis got the start in Week 3 and never looked back.
The Uniqueness of Hillis
The first thing that made Hillis unique was his playing time. From Week 3 to Week 15, he played in over 90% of Cleveland’s offensive snaps. The Browns trusted Hillis in every situation – for good reason – and the only reason he left the field was to rest. In comparison, Arian Foster was in for less than 80% of Houston’s offensive snaps, Adrian Peterson less than 70% for Minnesota, and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles just 53%.
As a runner, Hillis performed like one of the better players in the league: 270 carries for 1181 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 4.4 yards per carry, and forced 31 missed tackles and each of those numbers – as well as his +8.8 PFF rating – were above average for starting halfbacks. One of the things we haven’t kept track of at Pro Football Focus is how many times one player leaps over another, but if we did I would guess Hillis would lead the league. His ability to pull off that play makes him that much more intriguing to watch.
As a converted fullback, you would expect Hillis to play well as a blocker. On 121 pass plays, he allowed just four combined pressures. He also graded well on the 55 plays where he served as a run blocker, many of those coming out of formations with Josh Cribbs lined up at quarterback.
The final element to Hillis’ game that made him stand out was his ability to catch out of the backfield. He hauled in nearly 90% of passes thrown his way, fifth best among halfbacks, and his lone drop placed him third in our recent drop percentage article for running backs. His 61 catches, 477 receiving yards, 453 yards after the catch, and 11 forced missed tackles were all in the Top 10.
A Game To Remember
In Week 9, the New England Patriots came to Cleveland and everyone expected them to dominate as they had been doing all season. The Browns, however, came out with a 34-14 victory, thanks in large part to Hillis.
The Browns had 64 offensive snaps, and half of them were plays to Hillis; 29 rushing attempts and three catches. On those 32 plays, he collected 210 yards, two touchdowns and he forced three missed tackles. His +5.8 overall rating that day was the second best single-game rating a running back received in 2010.
While Hillis became the centerpiece of the Browns offense in 2010, it’s unlikely that he will see this kind of season again. Part of the reason he got so much time in 2010 was because the alternative was Mike Bell. The Browns don’t want to over work him, so we would expect his playing time to decrease in 2011, but not his quality of play.
Cleveland didn’t address the backup halfback position in this year’s draft, but last year they selected Montario Hardesty in the 2nd round. He missed the entire 2010 season, but should be back in 2011 so Hillis won’t have to carry the entire load.
Hillis is the best offensive player the Browns have, he’s a reason for them to be optimistic about the future, and he’ll be known by even more people once Madden is released in two months. He’s an example to be pointed to as a player who worked hard and, in one year, went from backup to star.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke