In my weekly column, we take a long look at two rookies. I will compare their performance to date against my original expectations of them. Let’s continue this series off by looking back at Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon after their Week Nine games.
Ronnie Hillman, RB DEN
My original thoughts of him in college: Hillman is a very quick/agile guy that has great footwork. After watching his games against Air Force and Washington State, there were several things that jumped out to me. Hillman uses the sideline to his advantage as he has a tendency to bounce plays outside which is where he excels. Running inside is not an issue, but he tends to get swallowed up easier, unless he has a decent sized seam. Hopefully, he can learn to limit his dance moves and take the yards that are there.
The counter play is a strength for him which will be helpful in a Peyton Manning offense as Hillman possesses good balance and an effective jump cut. I loved his determination to score when he was within 20 yards of the end zone. There was not much pass blocking that I saw; however, he does have soft hands and is fantastic in space with the ball in his hands.
Here is what I saw from Hillman against the Bengals: First things first, he did not get a lot of work this past Sunday. On his only carry, he took the rock four yards straight up the heart of the defense. He put his head down and pushed through the pile. Willis McGahee saw the lions share of the carries (23) and was not terribly effective with them. The Bengals sold out to stop the run to make the Broncos a one-dimensional team. Surprisingly, on one play, he was used as the tail back behind McGahee on a formation close to their own end zone.
In the passing game, Hillman looked like a puppy following Peyton Manning around the field. When the quarterback would walk towards the line of scrimmage, the rookie would follow him step for step. This became quite comical after the third time. He did block well for his signal caller when he asked to pass protect. On his only passing target, he made a great catch in the flat. Number 21 adjusted to a poorly throw ball that was behind him and pressed for extra yardage to get the first down.
It was a disappointment that he only touched the ball two times versus the Bengals. Make sure you keep in mind is that he is the youngest player in the NFL and needs time to adjust to the more cerebral and physical game. On the season, Hillman has 32 carries for 140 yards rushing and six receptions for 38 yards on six targets. The Broncos are increasing his plays as he gets a clearer understanding of the Denver playbook and, of course, Manning’s trust. This year he will never be in your lineup unless an injury strikes McGahee and even then the rookie would share touches with Lance Ball. Next year and beyond are a different matter as he has the quicks that no one else on the team possesses. He should grow into an RB3-4 within a year depending on how long Manning remains with the Broncos. It will also give him a chance to be a more well-rounded back.
Josh Gordon, WR CLE
My original thoughts of him in college: Gordon was a limited route runner who had an aptitude for run blocking. At 6’3″ 225 lbs, he is quite the physical receiver and is not afraid to go across the middle to make tough catches. He excelled at running screens and deep nine routes that took advantage of his size, speed, and power. Outside of Justin Blackmon, he has the biggest catch radius of his class and has a fantastic center of gravity. This lets him contort his body to make the most difficult catches.
Gordon struggles at securing the ball once he makes the catch. Last year he missed his entire college season because of a drug suspension. This made him eligible for the supplemental draft. Cleveland thought enough of him to give up a second round pick in the 2013 draft. A year away from football and known drug use make him a wildcard pick for the Browns, despite his raw tools.
Here is what I saw from Gordon against the Ravens: Despite having a productive rookie season, he did not start this past week. Mohamed Massaquoi, who was finally healthy after missing five games, started this AFC North matchup. Gordon initially lined up in the slot, but soon reverted back to his outside role in the second quarter once Massaquoi disappeared. He was very effective in the run game as he blocked well for fellow rookie Trent Richardson. One on sweep, he laid out all-pro safety Ed Reed with a vicious crack-block.
He finished with only two catches for 38 yards on three targets, but that hardly tells the story in this game. His first target was a short drag crossing pattern that he turned into a decent gain for a first down. He should have caught a 40 yard bomb, but the defensive back made a play on the ball because Gordon could not get separation from him. The defender did a great job getting his arms forcibly between the rookie and the ball. His rookie quarterback, Brandon Weeden, was not especially sharp against Baltimore. Weeden threw a 26 yard duck that was so under-thrown that the rookie wide receiver had to dive back towards the ball to barely scoop it off the ground. Gordon was wide-open on that pattern and may have scored if not for that poorly thrown ball. Fantasy owners had their hearts broken again when he took an 18 yard post pattern to the end zone after swatting the defensive back out-of-the-way, only to find out there was a holding penalty on the offensive line, negating the touchdown.
Gordon is a very talented, raw receiver that should be the number two play maker in Cleveland right after Richardson. I value him as a WR4 with the upside to become a WR3 at least if not a WR2 in a year or so. Weeden has a lot to learn and so does his rookie receiver. Once he learns the complete route tree and earns his quarterback’s trust, the sky is the limit for him.