More than meets the measurables
At this time last year, there was talk that Hill had bombed his combine. Draftniks were overwhelmingly considering him a short-yardage specialist, a thumper who would need to be paired with a more dynamic athlete and given committee snaps. Hill shut them up quickly, excelling at the line and showing well down the field in establishing himself as 2014’s top rookie runner by a mile. So why the initial hesitation?
It’s true that a handful of his athletic measurables – a 4.66-second 40-yard dash, a 29” vertical jump, and a 9’5” broad jump – were definitively sub par. Hill did now show very explosive athleticism in combine drills and didn’t participate in agility drills. But it’s important to calibrate our expectations properly, and note the recent prospects who’ve posted comparable numbers. And the fact is that Hill turned in a superior 40-yard dash to LeVeon Bell and superior or identical vertical/broad jump numbers to LeSean McCoy (though 29 pounds heavier)
Frankly, I’m fine with an inside runner who compares athletically to LeVeon Bell and LeSean McCoy. Especially when that athleticism bears itself out on the field, where Hill turned in a fantastic rookie campaign. Over the season’s final nine games, once Giovani Bernard was effectively banished to a change-of-pace role, Hill led the entire league in rushing yardage (929) and yards per carry (5.40). You don’t need me to explain how gorgeous that YPC mark is, but for some perspective, let’s take a look at all other rookie RBs since 2000 who have amassed a 4.8 YPC or better on 150+ rushes:
*according to 2014 PPR finishes
That’s quite a list. Seven of those 10 backs went on to become at least short-term fantasy stars, with three (Peterson, Portis, and Jones-Drew) becoming bona fide fantasy legends. Another (Anderson) went on to post another 1,000-yard, 12-TD season later down the road. And yet another (Blount) has flashed fantasy utility on and off since his rookie season. In fact, the only true second-year busts were only busts due to their teams’ starters (Arian Foster and Terrell Davis) returning from injuries. It’s probably safe to assume from recent history that Hill’s rookie success wasn’t fluky.
And like Lacy, Hill shows potential to buck the trend of big backs who don’t/can’t contribute in the passing game. The stance of “he’s a power back, so yank him when you want to throw” is a fairly lazy rule to evaluate by; at LSU, Hill displayed surprisingly impressive hands and blitz pickup ability. That carried over into his rookie year, where he averaged two targets per game and caught a studly 84% of them. He also showed fairly well with the ball in his hands, averaging 8.0 yards per catch. If we can project Hill to two receptions or so per game, he can break that power back mold and easily maintain his RB1 value through all PPR formats.
Clearly, then, the only concern we really need to weigh is Hill’s workload. The logical outlook is pretty strong: Giovani Bernard has been exposed as a package back who struggles as a feature runner (a career 4.06 YPC and mediocre goal line success), and that’s obviously a major boon to Hill’s stock. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee him RB1 usage; Bernard is still alive and entrenched in the game plan. Even while Hill paced the entire league down the stretch, Bernard siphoned away 59 rushes and 25 targets over the final six weeks. Bernard is the more effective and dynamic receiver, too – likely his ideal role in an NFL offense.
Therefore, it’s important we set realistic expectations for Hill’s overall involvement. Over that six-game span, Hill drew 67% of the pair’s rushes, so that’s a good jumping off point. It’s tempting to project that number to rise, but pump the brakes: Hill’s 122 rushes would project to a 279-carry season, a reachable mark, but certainly on the outer edges of what we could plausibly expect. More likely, the two will see a very similar dynamic to that seven-game stretch. Going forward we’ll need to project the Bengals’ game scripts for 2015 to solidly project Hill’s touches.
And that game script looks likely to change a bit. The Bengals project to face the league’s second-toughest schedule in 2015, including dates with the stubborn defenses of the NFC West. With that knowledge, we can assume more deficits and therefore somewhat less running opportunity. Still, coordinator Hue Jackson is a smash mouth guy who utilizes smash mouth playcalling – his last three offenses have run the ball 49%, 46% and 48% of the time, all well above the league average. So it’s hard to see too noticeable a difference in rushing volume, but it’s safe to consider that schedule and be prepared.
Luckily for Hill owners, regardless of his overall success, he looks prepared to make hay in the red zone. Hill showcased long-distance ability as a rookie, rattling off scoring runs of 60 and 85 yards, but was one of the league’s most effective short-yardage runners. He turned 11 carries from inside the five into six touchdowns, an excellent rate that dwarfed Bernard’s ho-hum scoring ability. All told, it looks safe to project Hill for another 9+ touchdown mark. Again, consider the schedule – the Bengals likely won’t find themselves in the red zone quite as often. But know that, when they get there, Hill and A.J. Green will be the team’s preferred options by a wide margin.
- Talent. Hill isn't the athlete Giovani Bernard is, but he brings plenty to the table. He's a punishing inside runner who excels on the goal line and seems to hold up nicely under the pounding of a feature back's workload. Furthermore, reports of his uselessness in the passing and outside running games were blown to pieces last year. He'll see his share of versatile looks.
- Opportunity. Few teams run the ball at a higher clip than Hue Jackson's Bengals. While a shift in game script may cause a slight drop in rushes, Hill has no concerns whatsoever about suddenly finding himself in a balanced offense. Cincinnati will run its backs until their wheels come off.
- Red zone dominance. Bernard is likely no longer a big part of the team's plans near the goal line, and this isn't a roster flushed with proven short-yardage targets in the passing game. Hill and A.J. Green look to absolutely dominate opportunity inside the 10.
- Time share. Hill may have overtaken Bernard in the offense, but he hasn't vanquished him into limbo or anything. Bernard isn't much of a runner, but he's a fine receiver whose athleticism at least suggests better days on the horizon. Besides, even if Bernard's play fell off a cliff, another complementary back would take his place; this offense is far too ground-oriented to ever hand Hill 75% of its touches.
- Game flow. The Bengals are a middle-of-the-pack team, and they face a brutal 2015 schedule - almost the inverse from their patty-cake 2014. They'll likely find themselves trailing more, running less, and finding themselves near the end zone less often.
- Lack of elite athleticism. Hill proved as a rookie he's no bumbling plodder, but Barry Sanders he is not. If the long runs don't repeat themselves, Hill could find himself mired in Joique Bell territory, only effective up the gut and struggling to mediocre yardage totals.
With two startable backs on roster, both drafted relatively high and both with very clear points of strength, the Bengals look likely to implement a two-headed RB approach. But that shouldn’t scare you from Hill in and of itself; he’s a gifted runner who blew away his rookie competition in 2014. In fact, down the stretch, he blew away all NFL runners in terms of efficiency and yardage production, so you should feel good about his 2015 outlook. Considering the Bengals’ run-heavy offense, Hill looks poised to threaten the 280-carry mark, which would all but guarantee his RB1 status. Be confident in snapping him up in the second round, and as the offseason progresses, you might even bump him into the Matt Forte/Adrian Peterson tier of the late first round. He looks like a true fantasy lynchpin at a position that struggles to field consistent ones.
Earlier this offseason, Geoff Hobson at Bengals.com speculated that Hill had a bellcow outlook, projecting him to meet his usage rate from that magical 2014 stretch run:
“Hill may be the bell cow next year, but Bernard is still going to get a lot of key touches as the change-of-pace guy. If Hill gets 15-to-20 touches a game, Gio gets 8-11.”
Justin Thompson of numberFire likes Hill’s outlook, but cautions drafters about the possibility of Bernard commanding a hefty chunk of the work and splitting their value:
“While it’s certain that Hill has done more than enough to warrant the starting position, it’s not unfathomable to think that both running backs could finish inside the top 15 if Jackson and Lewis utilize them often and when they are at their best.”