ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –Although he's still the youngest player on the Broncos, running back Ronnie Hillman now has a full season of NFL experience under his belt.
After being inactive for the first two games of his rookie season, Hillman appeared in the final 14 contests of the regular season, as well as the AFC Divisional Round game versus Baltimore.
He finished the season with 85 carries for 330 yards with one touchdown to go with 10 catches for 62 yards.
"That's hard to tell," Hillman said when asked to evaluate his rookie year. "Obviously rookies come with mistakes, but I felt like it got better throughout the year. I can't really give it a grade. I'm not a professional grader, but I feel like I could improve a lot more."
Hillman's most extensive action came in the playoff game as he carried the ball a career-high 22 times and finished with 83 yards in addition to three catches for 20 yards to mark his first game with 100 total yards from scrimmage.
One of his biggest leaps in improvement came in blitz pickup as a blocker.
As he continued to make strides in that department throughout the season, the coaches were able to trust him more and give him more snaps.
"You've seen a lot more," Hillman said. "And a lot of it comes with maturity and learning how to study different types of blitzes and how the blitzer blitzes. It just comes with experience, I guess."
Through three days of OTAs, the team's coaches have already seen an improvement in the pass-blocking abilities of the second-year running back.
"The thing that he's shown us the last three days is at least his aggressiveness and willingness to go attack the blitzer," Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said. "That's what we need to see. When we get in pads, that's going to be a different deal as far as, OK, is he going to be able to sustain and do it consistently? I think he will."
In addition having a year of experience under his belt, Hillman also has a year of working out with an NFL strength and conditioning staff.
That's resulted in a 15-pound gain that boosted the running back from 180 pounds at the end of the 2012 season to 195 pounds at the start of the team's offseason program.
"I think the one thing that Ronnie with that size for him—he was light last year," Gase said. "And that happens with a young guy, his first year in the league, his weight decreases. That pounding that you're going to take running between the tackles—he needs to keep that size. And I think he will. (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Luke (Richesson), (Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach) Jason (George), (Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach) Mike Eubanks and (Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach) Anthony (Lomando)—they do a great job over there in our strength department as far as keeping the weight up and increasing his strength as the season goes on. I think he'll be able to do that this year."
In addition to the added bulk helping in blitz pickup, it should also pay off as the team expects Hillman to contribute more in the run game in 2013.
"That size that he's put on, that should help him," Gase said. "But his mentality, he's an aggressive guy. For a guy that's built like him, you see him bigger now, he was never afraid to run between the tackles to begin with. Running the ball inside there and being able to take on linebackers, it's very close to being the same thing for him as far as a physical standpoint."
Known for his blazing speed in college, Hillman isn't concerned that adding weight will slow him down at all.
"Since I'm practicing with it now, I'm getting used to it," Hillman said. "By the time the season comes I won't even notice."
Between OTAs, minicamp and training camp, there is still plenty of time for the Broncos' stable of running backs to carve out their roles for the upcoming season.
During the first set of OTAs, Hillman had the opportunity to take reps with the first team, an experience that he called "a privilege."
But Hillman knows how tough the competition will be between himself, Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Jeremiah Johnson and second-round draft pick Montee Ball for carries. With limited reps to go around, Hillman is making the most of the situation and using the competition to make himself even better.
"I have the opportunity like every guy in here," he said. "It's a competition out there and everybody wants to play and get reps. I'm just trying to take advantage of the competition so I'm just trying to earn my spot on the team."
The player who counts on Hillman the most as a pass blocker is quarterback Demaryius Thomas.
And the four-time MVP expects Hillman to continue the growth the he showed throughout his rookie season.
"Ronnie got great experience last year as a rookie," Manning said. "We're really counting on him this year to have more of a role in the offense. Last year they kind of had a rotation and he had a certain amount of snaps that he was going to get. I definitely see that role increasing and Adam (Gase) giving him more responsibility in this offense. It's not just kind of a limited package like we did last year. We are really expecting him to make that next-level jump. It starts during these OTAs and training camp and being more of an established veteran running back. To me, after your rookie year, you are a veteran in my opinion. Second year, third year, fourth year—it doesn't matter. A lot of the expectations out of Ronnie and we're counting on him to do good things for us this year."