Hillis signing good for K.C., not fantasy
The Kansas City Chiefs made a big move toward solidifying their backfield Wednesday, and they did it at relatively low risk. They signed Peyton Hillis to a one-year, $3 million contract. From a football perspective, I could scarcely love the move more. From a fantasy perspective, boy, it's complicated.
There's no question Hillis has the raw chops to be an every-down back. He did it for the Cleveland Browns two years ago, emerging from relative obscurity -- he was traded to the Browns for Brady Quinn -- to produce a 1,654-total-yard, 13-total-TD season. He subsequently appeared on the cover of Madden. For some, he was a borderline first-round draft pick in 2011 fantasy leagues. But he flamed out this past season, missing time due to injury (he played in 10 games), grousing about his contract and often looking like a shadow of his 2010 self. Now he joins a Chiefs team that cobbled together a backfield last season from parts that included an aging Thomas Jones, tiny Dexter McCluster and the immortal Jackie Battle.
Of course, the reason K.C. had to do this cobbling was because starter Jamaal Charles tore his left ACL. "J-Mail" was himself a breakout superstar in 2010, putting together a 1,935-total-yard, eight-total-TD season. When he's right, Charles might be the quickest player in the NFL, an open-field nightmare and a megastar. And now he finds himself paired with Hillis, a 250-pound bull who was born to drive his helmet into linebackers and push the final few yards into an end zone. While it's pure poetry from an on-field perspective, this has the makings of fantasy poison.
Granted, there's a lot we don't know. We can't be sure Charles will be recovered enough from his ACL surgery to perform at his top level. We've all been told that, typically, a running back might return from this major surgery after one year, but he often doesn't truly regain his strength and cutting ability until two years post-surgery. It bodes well that J-Mail's injury came in Week 2, so he'll have had almost a full year to recover once the 2012 regular season comes around, but still, until we see how he looks in Chiefs camp, we just can't know anything for sure. And we also won't know Hillis' state of mind, or whether his injury-plagued career will continue its unsteady path. The big guy didn't play well under the looming specter of a new contract last year, and his deal with the Chiefs is clearly a "prove-it" arrangement designed to potentially get him a bigger payday in 2013. And despite the fact that he's only 26, Hillis has already taken a heck of a lot of punishment in his NFL career.
The best-case scenario for the Chiefs -- Charles returns to maybe 85 percent of his inherent skills in '11 and Hillis stays healthy -- might just be the most vexing scenario for fantasy owners. Can't you envision Charles as the main guy between the 20s, racking up a bunch of yardage, then giving way to Hillis in TD situations? And Hillis is a heck of a pass-catcher out of the backfield, too, which has always made him a natural for third downs, but isn't Charles a scarier proposition for defenses when he's in open space? (Worth noting: Hillis' career high in receptions for a season is 61, and Charles' is 45.) If both guys are healthy and effective, this is a symbiotic relationship that probably works extremely well for the Chiefs, and not as well for fantasy owners. That said, drafting either of these running backs also comes with the upside of having the other guy get hurt. We've seen what it looks like when either of these players is "The Man." And it's very attractive.
On the heels of this news, I did lower Charles' ranking. I pushed him down from my No. 8 RB to No. 12, which moved him from the second round in standard ESPN.com leagues to the third. I actually didn't move Hillis; I had him ranked at No. 30 among RBs, and that's where I kept him, because my prior assumption was he'd land somewhere as a potentially TD-heavy tandem running back, which is what he seems like in K.C. But the problem with these ranks, of course, and the problem with drafting either of these players, is that either of these guys could wind up providing first-round value or sitting out half the season. The Chiefs' backfield will be as high-risk, high-reward as they come in '12.