FOXBORO -- Jeremy Hill made a business decision and took some heat for it.
Despite being on the receiving end of public criticism from Bengals
coach Marvin Lewis when he opted for mid-season ankle surgery last
fall, Hill's business savvy has him in the driver's seat for a key
role in the Patriots offense in 2018.
"I had to kind of hurry the process up," Hill said Sunday, "but I was
able to be healthy and get cleared. That gave me the confidence going
into it that a team would take a chance on me and they did."
Hill had bone spurs in his ankle taken care of in late November. He'd
played in seven games and received 37 carries to that point, and he
was ceding work to Bengals rookie back Joe Mixon. But the team clearly
wanted Hill to remain active for depth purposes. They were 3-5 headed
into a Week 10 game against the Titans when, after Hill had made the
call, he was placed on injured reserve.
"Jeremy thinks he needs to have ankle surgery," Lewis said at the
time. "Yeah. He’s consulted a couple of physicians. Both said this is
something that could wait until after the season, and he just felt
like it was causing too much discomfort."
That's a shot across the bow. But Hill's role being what it was, the
team's record being what it was, and his contract status being what it
was -- he was going to hit free agency after the season -- Hill made
the choice he felt was right for him.
In a league that annually grinds players and discards them when they
can't hack it physically, can he be blamed for it?
Hill couldn't have known he'd land with the Patriots, but he wanted to
put himself in position to be healthy as a free agent. He was no good
to a new club if they couldn't depend on him following offseason
"That was the plan. That's why I wanted to get [surgery] done when I
did get it done," he said. "That was the hope that I would go into
free agency healthy. I wasn't doubting the season, it was just going
into free agency. I didn't want to be the last guy signed because
teams were worried about whether or not I'd be healthy for free
The Patriots bit, adding Hill to a crowded depth chart that included
James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee and later added
first-round rookie runner Sony Michel. His deal was a modest one --
one year, $1.5 million with $150,000 guaranteed -- but he'd be given
an opportunity to compete.
"I remember getting the call from my agent saying that they were
interested and I was very excited to hear that," he said. "Just
following the team over the years, seeing their success and
everything, the players who play here. I said, 'Hey I think it'd be a
great fit for me.'
"Coming in, the coaches were so accepting of me. Coach Bill
[Belichick] and down the line to Josh [McDaniels] and everyone else,
coach [Ivan] Fears. It's just a feeling I got, that I would have a
chance, and that's all I could ask for at that point. Coming off of
surgery and going through a long rehab process. I was just happy to
hear that, that I would get a chance. When the opportunity presented
itself, I couldn't turn it down."
Hill's health, his availability in practice and preseason games, has
set him up for success as the Patriots have dealt with injuries to
both Burkhead and Michel through much of training camp. Being out
there as often as he was helped him adapt to what can be a difficult
offense to absorb for new players.
"I would say that just hearing the plays over and over, that gave me
the confidence I needed to know that I could be trustworthy out
there," Hill said. "When I first got in, it was just so overwhelming.
'Oh my goodness, I gotta learn all this.' Just going out there every
day, it really helped me a lot. That way I could play faster and just
go out there and be me rather than having to worry about, 'Oh, what do
I have on this? What do I have on that?'
"You go out there, hear it, and it's kind of second nature now when I
hear the plays . . . For me, it's just being out there on the field. I
can be in meetings and hear it and hear it and hear it. Until my feet,
my mind, everything go out there and I can kind of feel it, the game
actually -- that's when it kind of clicks for me."
But Hill's adjustment included more than learning a new offense on the
fly. He was thrust into a new nutrition program, a new strength and
conditioning program, and took to them with open arms.
Part of the reason he turned himself into the team's top "big back"
option was because he transformed his body. He cut beloved fried foods
from his diet, got down into the 220s after playing in the 230s in
Cincinnati, and looked more agile than what he'd last put on tape with
Showing good vision, burst, and abilities in the passing game that
went largely unused last season (four catches, 16 yards), it was
readily apparent that he was the best of the big backs on the roster.
He also showed some abilities in the kicking game, something he says
he hasn't done regularly since he was a kid, to help augment whatever
role he'll have offensively.
When the Patriots trimmed to 53 players this weekend, they released
Mike Gillislee, who'd been given a substantial contract (two years,
$6.4 million) as a restricted free agent before last season -- a move
that also required the Patriots to give a fifth-rounder to the Bills.
"Jeremy's had a good spring and a good summer," Belichick said Monday.
"New system, some different responsibilities, some different type
plays than what he has been used to running, but he certainly adapted
quickly . . . He's done a good job in all the areas we asked him to
Now Hill will have an opportunity to receive critical work when the
games matter starting next weekend. He could be the team's go-to
runner in short-yardage and on the goal line.
That business decision he made last fall? The one his old team
discouraged? It looks like a wise one.
"The journey's been a good one," Hill said. "Coming in. Ready to work.
Doing whatever I could to help the team. It's paid off so far. Gotta
continue to work, though."