Looking to add depth, Buccaneers take a chance on Hillis
Imagine trying to defend a two-back offense that features the explosive Doug Martin and the powerful Peyton Hillis. That's what NFC South teams might face this season when they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who brought in the itinerant Hillis for a tryout Tuesday and then signed him to a one-year, free-agent contract for the minimum salary for a sixth-year veteran.
Hillis, 27, has had one signature season, 2010, when he rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns -- a performance that turned him into the cover boy for the Madden 2012 NFL video game. But the Arkansas product has done little to distinguish himself since then. He flamed out in Cleveland after rushing for only 587 yards in 2011 and then managed only 309 yards on 85 carries last season in Kansas City, where he was the primary backup for AFC leading rusher Jamaal Charles.
Naturally, the Bucs had some questions for Hillis when they brought him in on Tuesday.
"We wanted to get a feel for where he was mentally, where his mindset was in terms of different positions he'd play," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik told SI.com. "Quite frankly, had he been humbled up a little bit to sit there and go, 'I missed this game and I'm going to play it to my highest level?'"
Originally selected as a seventh-round draft back by Denver in 2008 -- he rushed for 397 yards on 81 carries in two seasons for the Broncos -- Tampa is Hillis' fourth NFL stop in six years. If he makes the final roster, he will be expected to play several roles for the Bucs: starting fullback, a third-down, goal-line back who can spell Martin, and a special teams player.
Barring injury, there's no chance Hillis will beat out Martin, a first-round pick out of Boise State last year who burst on to the NFL scene by rushing for 1,454 yards. Only the Vikings' Adrian Peterson (2,097 yards), Redskins rookie Alfred Morris (1,613), the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch (1,590) and Charles (1,509) rushed for more yards in 2012.
Tampa Bay doesn't have a lot of depth or size at running back. Hillis will compete for playing time with running back/fullback hybrid Brian Leonard, Michael Smith, Erik Lorig and rookie Mike James. LeGarrette Blount, the primary backup to Martin last season, was traded to New England during the offseason.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Hillis is a running back in a fullback's body. In fact, he began his NFL career in 2008 as the starting fullback for the Broncos. Denver suffered a spate of injuries at running back that season, and Hillis soon rose to the top of the pack, gaining 343 yards and scoring five touchdowns as a rookie. Expectations rose for Hillis after that rookie performance, but he became almost a forgotten man in Denver in 2009, when he rushed only 13 times for 54 yards.
Hillis is a between-the-tackles power runner who could be a good complement for the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Martin. The Bucs also hope to use Hillis as a receiver out of the backfield (he caught 61 passes for 477 yards and two touchdowns for Cleveland in 2010).
"He does have such soft hands to catch the ball," Dominik said.
Those hands also have been suspect, however, because Hillis has had fumbling problems. That won't cut it in Tampa, where last year rookie head coach Greg Schiano and his staff made ball security a big emphasis. As a result, the Bucs' running backs and receivers fumbled only one time in 2012.
Dominik praised Hillis for his workout on Tuesday. "He caught the ball great. He's in great shape. He ran all over the field."
"I think he's been humbled," Dominik said.
Now we'll see how the former video game cover boy responds to another opportunity when he's not the leading man.