New England Patriots running back Jeremy Hill wasn’t lying when he said he felt great earlier this week.
Hill played great Thursday night in the Patriots’ preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. With 11 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown and two catches for 14 yards, Hill was the big winner in New England’s first exhibition game of the year.
Rookie Ralph Webb had a sexier stat line, with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, but it was Hill who looked better, especially when compared to his direct competition for a roster spot, Mike Gillislee.
While Gillislee was getting stonewalled at the line of scrimmage, having trouble hitting holes, Hill looked spry with an added jolt of quickness. There’s reason to believe Hill should look better than he has in years past. He lost 10 pounds over the offseason and had surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankles. Hill, who played with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2014 to 2017, hasn’t averaged over 3.8 yards per carry since his rookie season in 2014, but he could be on pace for a bounce back year in his new home.
Because Hill is a bigger back at 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, there’s an assumption he would be a trick-pony ball-carrier in New England. That wasn’t the case Thursday night. He made one of the best blocks of the night in pass protection and was catching passes out of the backfield.
— Hill planted Washington linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, giving quarterback Brian Hoyer time to complete a pass to fullback Henry Poggi.
Most big backs in the Patriots’ offense — whether it’s Gillislee, LeGarrette Blount or Stevan Ridley — generally don’t contribute heavily in the passing game. That Hill had two receptions in limited snaps is sign enough that perhaps the Patriots see more versatility out of Hill than most backs of his ilk.
He made some nice moves on a 12-yard reception midway through the third quarter.
— Hill first did his duty by chipping pass rusher Vontae Diggs while coming out of the backfield.
— Hill, running a flat route, made the reception around the 29-yard line.
— He made cornerback Greg Stroman miss with a quick stutter step around the 28 and kept charging upfield.
— He then shoved linebacker Jerod Fernandez to the ground with a stiff arm, allowing him to keep charging forward.
— That allowed Hill to pick up 8 more yards for the first down and more.
Adding to that versatility is the fact that Hill lined up on special teams eight times Thursday night. Hill played just 11 total special teams snaps in his four seasons with the Bengals. The Patriots’ willingness to experiment with Hill in new ways might have tipped their hand that they want him to stick.
Patriots running backs Rex Burkhead, James White and rookie Sony Michel are locks to make the roster, but Michel currently is dealing with a knee injury. So whoever makes the roster between Hill, Gillislee and Webb could have a big role to start the season while Michel recovers and gets acclimated to the NFL.
As a bigger back, Hill’s primary role likely will be in short-yardage and goal line situations. Only one touchdown showed up in the box score for Hill on Thursday night, but it actually looked like he got into the end zone twice.
— On first-and-goal from Washington’s 6-yard line, Hill took the handoff from Hoyer.
— He had a massive hole open up between the center and left guard that quickly was filled by Washington safety Troy Apke.
— Hill attempted to dive toward the end zone.
— And he appeared to score, but officials ruled him down at the 1-yard line. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn’t challenge.
Hill was handed the ball again on the next play from the 1-yard line.
— Fullback Henry Poggi was his lead blocker and didn’t fully connect on safety Fish Smithson.
— Hill had three bodies in front of him, and he was still 2 yards shy of the end zone.
— So, Hill turned backwards and burrowed backwards toward the goal line.
— He fell forward with the ball near his chest. Officials reviewed the play and determined this one was a touchdown.
Gillislee actually had trouble last season in certain short-yard situations. He also had trouble staying healthy. Hill being able to convert near the goal line Thursday night was important. Players only get so many opportunities in the preseason, so they have to make the most of them.
Hill showed a good mix of versatility, burst, quickness and power in his small-sample size. There’s still nearly a month before the Patriots start the 2018 season, but Hill is off to a strong start toward beating out his competition for a roster spot and role.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images