The curious case of Peyton Hillis

As I’ve been participating in the Draftmaster series of mock/real drafts, it has been strange to see last year’s #2 RB (in PPR formats) slip all the way to the 3rd round. His current ADP is 3.02, but I have been able to snag him in the middle of the third in three straight drafts.

In fact, I took him at 3.06 in a Fantasy Football Experts Mock Draft and it generated quite the email chain as it appears that people are very split on whether or not Hillis will be a bona fide RB1 in 2011. I drafted him as my RB2 (behind LeSean McCoy) after taking Mike Wallace at 2.07. I think he’ll make a terrific second RB for those owners lucky enough to have a pick in the top 5, who take him late in the 2nd or early in the 3rd.

The main knock on Hillis seems to be workload-related, given the return of Montario Hardesty, whom the Browns selected in the 2nd round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Hardesty amassed 1,647 total yards and scored 14 TDs in his senior year at Tennessee after gaining just 1,131 total yards in his previous three seasons. He tore the ACL in his left knee in the preseason and missed the entire 2010 season. He also missed 27 days of training camp with a bone bruise in his right knee, which is the same knee that he injured (torn ACL) in college in 2005.

So barring the addition of a legit free agent (Ronnie Brown, DeAngelo Williams, Ricky Williams, etc.) the biggest threat to Hillis’ touches is a guy who has torn ACLs in both of his knees in the last five years.

Another issue affecting Hillis is the change at the head coach, where Pat Shurmur takes over for Eric Mangini. Shurmur was the offensive coordinator for the Rams for the last two seasons and will likely calling the plays for the Browns in 2011.

Will Shurmur give Hillis the same number of touches this season? Or will the workload be more spread out? Some of this will have to do with the personnel available at the RB position, but by looking at Shurmur’s history as an OC, we can get a feel for how he typically divvies up the work.

The table below shows the workload of the lead back for the 2010 Browns (Hills) and the 2009 and 2010 Rams (Steven Jackson).

[table id=14 /]The general consensus is that Hillis’ workload was too heavy last year, yet the numbers show that it was right in line with the way Shurmur used Steven Jackson the last two seasons.

Still, Hardesty’s talent (and the draft pick that the Browns used to get him) will demand that he get more touches than Kenneth Darby did as Jackson’s backup in St. Louis. But how much will Hardesty eat into Hillis’ workload? That’s the real question, and we won’t know for sure until training camp starts and the coaches start defining each player’s role.

There is reason to believe that Hillis will remain the Browns’ feature back. Amongst RBs, he ranked #9 in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (which measures total value) and #13 in DVOA (which measures value on a per play basis). Both rankings indicate that Hillis is above average amongst starting RBs and it’s doubtful that Hardesty will be able to outplay him, at least initially. He also averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which ranked #10 amongst RBs with 200+ carries.

And let’s not forget how good he is as a receiver out of the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, he had just one drop out of 62 catchable balls in 2010, and finished the season with 61 catches for 477 yards and two TDs. While he wasn’t particularly dynamic after making the catch (his 7.82 yards per catch ranked #16 out of 27 RBs who caught 30+ passes), he was definitely solid. If the Browns add a third down back like Darren Sproles or Brian Westbrook, Hillis’ reception total would no doubt drop. Hardesty could also be a factor in the passing game — he caught 25 passes as a senior at Tennessee.

So what does this all mean? Well, I can’t say for sure, but Hillis’ workload is likely to decrease. That’s why last year’s #2 RB is slipping into the third round. The question is whether or not Hillis is going to get enough work to justify being the #14 RB taken off the board.

Below you’ll find a table adjusting Hillis’ 2010 workload by three different percentages (90%, 80%, 70%) along with Mike Clay’s projections (from Pro Football Focus) which look like they’re close to the 80% assumption. To the right, you’ll see where each level of production would have ranked in both 2009 and 2010.

[table id=15 /]

As the #14 RB off the board, Hillis wouldn’t be a big disappointment even if he produces at 70% of his 2010 levels. Hillis is just 25, so a 30% drop in production doesn’t seem likely, especially since Shumur has shown the ability to make an offense more productive. Keep in mind that he took over a Rams team that posted just 709 total rushes and receptions in 2008. That number improved to 723 in 2009 and 783 in 2010. The Browns posted just 709 rushes and receptions in 2010, so there is plenty of room for improvement. There’s also the matter of his strength of schedule, which projects to be 3.5% better in 2011. His fantasy playoff schedule — PIT in W14, BAL in W16 — isn’t pretty, but on the whole, his schedule should be easier.

So yes, Hardesty will eat into Hillis’ touches, but some of that may very well be offset by the overall improvement of the Cleveland offense and an easier projected schedule. I would expect Hillis to finish somewhere in the 80%-90% range as compared to his 2010 production, which means he should finish the season in the #6 to #13 range, making him a good pick in the late second round and a great pick in the early third.

3 Responses to “The curious case of Peyton Hillis”

  • brent:

    whats happening to hillis is exactly what happened to charles last yr, the fantasy world thought too much and gave too many reason why charles would lose too many touches to thomas jones…cleveland currenty has no faces really to represent the team “hillis is a superstar in the making as he exploded on the scene and has since gone on to the madden cover,they will not go and ruin the new face of the franchise
    by negating his role imo …i look forward to grabbing hillis in the 3rd rd after i go stud wr,stud wr,peyton hillis,blount/green/stewart/moreno/dwill

    ps charles/blount took me to another title last yr making it back to back titles ….looking forward to a 3 peat

  • Tom:

    Hillis was a top recruit out of HS. He got lost at ARK. Last year, he showed he’s a talented player. I thought he busted down the stretch.

    I’m one who believes in the Madden Curse. I wonder if he breaks down this year similar to Matt Forte’s second year as a lead back

  • Trey:

    I am fairly sure that Hillis will have a better year than a 3rd round pick. Yes he is going to lose some touches, but the ones that matter most at the goaline will be his. He catches the ball way to well not to be used in that capacity especially in that system and with Colt at the helm. I still put him just outside the the top 10 and certainly if he starts off well could be used him as a trading chip. I call that a commodity…