Every season, we do our best to predict who the big sleepers and breakout candidates are going to be. Every season, we get a few of them wrong -- very wrong. But just because a certain player goes bust one year doesn't mean they'll be a bust forever. Welcome to "Bust-a-Move", where we're breaking down some of 2015's biggest fantasy football disappointments to determine if you can expect some stat sheet salvation in 2016.
Jeremy Hill burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2014 and for a time made us all think that platoon wasn't a four-letter word when it came to fantasy running backs. The former LSU Tiger roared to a top-10 fantasy finish at his position with 1,339 scrimmage yards (1,124 rushing) and nine total touchdowns. That led much of the fantasy world to think that bigger things were in store for 2015.
That's what we get for thinking.
Anyone that had Hill on their fantasy roster last season experienced drinking coffee with a fork-levels of frustration. With essentially the same number of carries, Hill posted 330 fewer rushing yards and 466 fewer scrimmage yards. Were it not for his 12 total touchdowns (11 rushing), the season would have been a near-total loss. Should we expect more of the same in 2016 or is there a rebound coming?
What went wrong
Early on in the season, Hill was the source of his own problems. He gave the ball away twice in the Week 2 game against the Chargers and in the process temporarily gave away his spot on the field to Giovani Bernard. Hill kept his starting job but from that moment forward, it was Bernard who was on the field more frequently. In 2014, the pair split the running back snaps almost equally with Bernard holding a slight 510 to 501 advantage. That number swung wildly in Bernard's favor in 2015 (580-456).
But even with a diminished number of snaps, Hill had essentially the same number of carries from his rookie campaign. The difference is that he wasn't nearly as efficient with his chances. His 5.1 yards-per-carry average plummeted to 3.6 YPC and his rushing yards per game fell accordingly. Some of that was owed to a change in Cincinnati's personnel philosophy. The Bengals used more two tight end sets in 2014, frequently employing Ryan Hewitt as a lead blocker and averaging 4.0 yards per carry. The following season, not only did the Bengals line up with two tight ends less frequently but they also gained just 3.5 yards per attempt in those situations.
Still, Hill didn't do himself any favors with his play. The back often looked hesitant at the line of scrimmage. He (like most backs) is at his best when he attacks the hole quickly. That means generally running downhill and quickly getting to the second level. Hill isn't going to outrun a lot of linebackers to the perimeter and the times he tried to run laterally, there generally wasn't a lot going on.
Another troubling stat was Hill's 1.46 yards after contact. That placed him 43rd among NFL running backs, including behind Bernard. When Hill's getting carries near the goal line, that's not quite as worrisome but it doesn't bode well for his carries between the 20s -- especially for a player who was so touchdown dependent in 2015.
What must improve
In my happiest fantasy football dreams, every running back is guaranteed 300 carries per season and is blessed with a blocking fullback to lead the way. Sadly, reality is looking less and less like my dreams with each passing season. But it would be nice to see the Bengals do more to get Hill someone that can lead the way through the holes. With both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu out of the picture, perhaps Cincinnati will return to more two-tight end lineups.
Speaking of changes, it will be interesting to see how the offense might differ now that Ken Zampese is the new offensive coordinator. There is some concern that Zampese will lean more toward throwing the football since much of his career has been spent as a quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. If you look at the Bengals' website, five of the first six paragraphs in Zampese's bio are about Andy Dalton. That would seem to suggest more of a desire to throw the ball -- which in turn would signal more work for Gio Bernard. But we can remain hopeful, right?
What we expect
Former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson fretted that at times last season Hill was trying to turn everything into a big play instead of taking what was in front of him. If Zampese and the rest of the Bengals staff take that criticism to heart, we'll see the team focus on Hill's strengths. That means more straight ahead, downhill runs between the tackles. However with Bernard still very capable of handling a large workload, Hill could have a short leash if he continues to be ineffective. This could end up being a defining season for the LSU product.
Verdict: I'm not ready to close the book on Hill as a legit fantasy contributor just yet. However, you should be able to draft him sometime in the late fourth or early fifth round as a RB2/3. Until he shows that he can be closer to the running back we saw in 2014, that's about as much risk as I'm willing to take with him.