Expectations were not set very high for Peyton Hillis when the Denver Broncos selected him in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Before getting drafted, Hillis played at the University of Arkansas behind future first-round draft picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
While at Arkansas, Hillis was the jack of all trades. He could run, catch, return kicks, and clear the way for a running back with a bruising block.
Given his size (6-feet, 240 pounds) and his ability to block, the Broncos listed Hillis as a fullback during his rookie year. But due to injuries to a number of players in their offensive backfield, Denver was forced to start him at running back towards the end of the 2008 season.
During the final four games of his rookie year with the Broncos, Hillis rushed for 305 yards and five touchdowns on 57 carries. He actually ended the season as Denver’s leading rusher.
Despite his success in 2008, Hillis barely touched the ball in his second year with the Broncos and the team eventually traded him to the Cleveland Browns during the 2010 offseason.
In Cleveland, the Browns actually gave Hillis the opportunity to compete for the starting running back job during the 2010 preseason. However, the team opted to begin the regular season with him listed as a fullback instead.
But it did not take very long before Hillis was starting at running back for Cleveland in 2010. Like in his rookie year with Denver, injuries to players above him on the team’s depth chart propelled Hillis into the starting lineup and he was on the field for the Browns’ opening play on offense by the team’s third game of the season.
Even though Cleveland lost their Week 3 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, Hillis thoroughly impressed the Browns’ coaching staff with a performance that ended with him rushing for 144 yards and one touchdown. After his great game against he Ravens, Cleveland decided to keep Hillis as their starting running back for the remainder of the season.
The Browns new running back went on to have a career year that saw him rush for 1,177 yards, catch 61 passes, and score a total of 13 touchdowns. A rare smart decision was definitely made by Cleveland in 2010.
Following his successful first year with the Browns, Hillis began to gain more notoriety with the average NFL fan. So much so that he was voted by fans to grace the cover of the video game Madden 12.
But with the cover also came high expectations for the upcoming season. Especially given the success Hillis experienced in 2010.
Unfortunately for the running back, he was never able to live up to those expectations during his second year with the Browns.
One could possibly say that he let his success get to his head as he was a bit overconfident heading into Cleveland’s 2011 season. Before the team even played a game in the regular season, Hillis was complaining to the public about not getting a contract extension and he even sat out a game that year with strep throat after his agent suggested that he should not play.
He ended up missing a total of six games in 2011 due to various injuries and his throat “problem”. When the season eventually came to a close, he gained less than half of the total yards from scrimmage that he finished with in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, the Browns decided not re-sign Hillis after his contract ran out following the 2011 season. He would go on to spend unsuccessful stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and New York Giants before retiring in 2015.
Would Hillis’ career in the NFL been different had he not been on the cover of Madden? Perhaps, but that is something that will never be known.
Hillis still ended up lasting in the league longer than most, but his time in the NFL definitely had the potential to be filled with a lot more success than what actually ended up happening.