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Ronnie Hillman to Start for Broncos?

Ronnie Hillman Fantasy Football 2013

The fantasy implications for the news that Ronnie Hillman could start the season atop the Broncos depth chart.

Ronnie Hillman FantasyHillman Enters Camp Listed Atop Depth Chart

Second-year running back Ronnie Hillman¬†has been named Denver’s starting running back as the club gets ready to begin training camp on Wednesday in Englewood, Colorado. Although the Broncos are expected to have an open competition for carries between Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball, it is noteworthy that John Fox anointed Hillman as first in-line to replace the departed Willis McGahee as Denver’s starter.

The assignment comes as a bit of a surprise as Hillman didn’t do much of note during his rookie season that saw him play sparingly. Hillman improved as the season wore on, but was always a change-of-pace option, first behind McGahee then, surprisingly, behind Moreno.

As is common with many rookie runners, the undersized Hillman ( 5′ 9″ 190) struggled in pass-protection and tended to run indecisively. According to Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, the former San Diego Aztec was bottled up for a short gain, or loss on a whopping 52.5% of his carries last season.

He may be listed as a starter, but unless Hillman shows dramatic improvement in his blocking, he’s going to have trouble staying on top of the depth chart. Being a willing and capable pass-protector is one of the most important job requirements for any running back that hopes to spend quality time lining up behind Peyton Manning. Just ask Donald Brown.

Also vying for carries will be Wisconsin rookie Montee Ball, the NCAA’s all-time leading touchdown scorer. Ball has spent a lot of time in mini-camp and throughout training camp shadowing Peyton Manning and working hard through voluntary practices. According to USA Today, Manning was impressed with the rookie and thought he had a good chance of significant playing time, right away.

While at Wisconsin, Ball was very durable and showed a nice blend of power and speed and excelled behind the Badgers’ superior offensive line. He was also a willing pass-blocker and underrated receiver out of the backfield. A downfield runner, Ball looks like a good fit in Denver’s blocking scheme.

Veteran Knowshon Moreno was a surprising waiver-wire hero late last season, showing that he can be a productive contributor when given a chance. Moreno is an excellent receiver and plus blocker but has always been marred by his inability to consistently stay healthy. Just when he was playing very well last season, Moreno hurt his knee, opening the door for Hillman to see increased playing time.

That knee injury is also preventing Moreno from suiting up as training camp is set to begin. Earlier this year, Moreno underwent a experimental stem-cell surgery on his injured right knee and as of now, no time-table has been set for his return. As long as he’s unable to participate, Moreno is in danger of falling behind on the depth chart or even becoming a salary cap casualty.

Fantasy Factor

Montee BallThe news won’t deter us from drafting Montee Ball this season. Our fantasy football rankings have had the rookie in our top twenty running backs for some time now. John Fox has a reputation for not trusting rookies, so Ball may be nursed along, but should still be a significant fantasy contributor. Back in 2008, Jonathan Stewart rushed for over 800 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie with the Fox-coached Panthers.

In an ideal situation, the Broncos would probably combine Ball as their featured back and spell him with a healthy Knowshon Moreno on some passing downs. Hillman would likely be utilized in a change-of-pace role until his blocking improved. Since Moreno isn’t going to be seeing playing time anytime soon, look for Denver to utilize a committee, with Ball getting the lion’s share of carries, including the all-important goal line touches. And we all know that goal line backs under Peyton Manning-led offenses will get ample opportunities to rack up fantasy points.

Montee Ball would be a ideal RB3 with fairly significant upside. His current ADP of 65 places him in the fifth round.

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