Then Hillman had some trouble hanging on to the ball -- including a late fumble in Indianapolis that effectively stifled a comebacker attempt -- as well as the job. The Broncos' third-round pick in the 2012 draft moved down the depth chart and, from the team's perspective, didn't exactly respond to the demotion as they had hoped, or maybe even expected.
So much so Hillman was a game day inactive five times during the regular season as well as all three of the Broncos' playoff games, including Super Bowl XLVIII. He has just two games with more than 10 carries -- 11 carries for 36 yards in the team's win over Philadelphia to go with 12 in the regular-season finale in Oakland -- and after Oct. 20 Hillman had a seven-game stretch when he did not have a carry.
That run included four games when he was an inactive, a game he played in without a carry and a game in which he was in uniform but did not get on the field.
Thursday at the NFL's scouting combine, Broncos head coach John Fox expressed at least some optimism Hillman could rebound in the manner Knowshon Moreno did from both injuries and a demotion. Moreno had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013.
"He's had no issues running the ball, he put it on the ground a couple times, like they all do, early in the season and really was in the mix," Fox said. "And we had some other guys -- C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Knowshon -- and the way it kind of works out sometimes, there's only so many can get a uniform on game day. He's in that mix, I think he's a tremendous talent, he does give us great explosion as a runner, particularly to the perimeter."
With Moreno an unrestricted free agent who will likely see bigger offers elsewhere, Hillman will get an opportunity through the offseason program to show how he will rebound from his bumpy ride in 2013. Ball is expected to be elevated into the No. 1 role if Moreno moves on and would push for more carries than the 120 he got this past season even if Moreno re-signed with the team.
That leaves Hillman, Anderson and any other future editions to the depth chart to carve up the carries that remain. Hillman and Anderson are the only other backs, other than Ball, currently under contract for next season.
"I know (Hillman) will work really hard this offseason and try to develop and get ready for next year," Fox said.