Seventh-round NFL picks aren’t supposed to amount to anything. Some do. (Tom Brady, anyone?) Mostly, though, these selections are used on fliers and stab in the dark. They may go on to play multiple NFL seasons, or they may never set foot on the field in the regular season.
Peyton Hillis was among the many players supposed to fall into this afterthought category. Drafted 227th overall in 2008 by the Denver Broncos, the running back was never billed for regular-down contribution, let alone stardom.
And yet, the former Arkansas Razorback showed something as a rookie. With the Broncos backfield decimated by injuries in 2008, he turned in some admirable efforts, including a 129-yard performance against the New York Jets in Week 13.
Though Hillis was eventually relegated to the backburner once the Broncos’ backfield returned to full strength in 2009, he was offered a lifeline, in the form of a trade, by the Cleveland Browns in the 2010 offseason. He responded by having one of the best years among all running backs, tallying 1,177 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. He added another 477 yards and two touchdowns as a pass-catcher.
Only five other players totaled more yards from scrimmage in the 2010 season, and all of them were stars: Darren McFadden, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, and Arian Foster. While Hillis wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl, he had a strong case. And his performance in Cleveland earned him the Madden 2012 cover as part of an inaugural fan-voting campaign that saw him topple marquee names like Charles, Rice, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and many more.
Unfortunately, though, this represented both the peak and end of Hillis’ prime. His production fell apart in the 2011 season. No one knows for sure why, but failed contract talks loomed largely. Hillis was in the final year of his rookie deal, and rumors of failed negotiations between him and the Browns circulated throughout the league. He ended up missing two games under ambiguous circumstances and was never afforded the type of volume he enjoyed in 2010.
Hillis’ career never recovered from this rough patch. He still appeared on the cover of Madden 2012, but that’s now more so known as a random feat. He would only play a total of 29 games over the next three seasons, split between the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs, before leaving the NFL entirely before his age-29 season.
Was Hillis really a flash in the pan, a one-year wonder always destined to fall off? Or did a lack of opportunity in Denver coupled with a lack of confidence from Cleveland do him in? It’s also been reported he was dealing with depression at the time. That has to be part of his story, too.
However you view Hillis’ career, there’s an unfinished element to it. Maybe he wasn’t on the track to stardom, but we’ll never know for sure.