There have been a few players that Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has talked about at length recently and Brian Hill has been one of those names mentioned often.
Hill is entering his fourth season with the Falcons and looks better than ever. He's improved in every aspect of his game and has earned more respect from his teammates and coaches in doing so. With less than two weeks to go until the season-opener against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 13, Hill appears to be the front-runner to win the No. 2 running back spot when the Falcons release their first unofficial depth chart next week.
"Brian is one of the most improved players that I've seen over the last few years," Quinn said. "The reason being from where he was just a few years ago to where his game is today. He's fit, he's strong, the reads are right, he's on it in protections, he adds value in special teams. He's definitely going to be a contributor."
The Falcons will use a committee of running backs behind Todd Gurley, who was signed to a one-year deal in free agency. Between Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is expected to have four different types of running backs he'll be able to utilize when the season begins. Hill's most important role might come as Atlanta's top pass-catching back behind Gurley.
This is unique because at one point, Hill viewed this as his biggest weakness in his first year with the Falcons. Hill was drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft after a prolific career at Wyoming, where his 4,287 yards made him the school's all-time leader in rushing yards. No player at Wyoming had ever totaled more than 3,000 rushing yards before Hill.
He struggled as a rookie and was ultimately cut by the Falcons a month into the season. The Cincinnati Bengals signed Hill quickly after and he played in six games. However, Hill didn't make the Bengals' 53-man in the 2018 season and re-joined Atlanta's practice squad on Sept. 3. Eight days later, he was promoted to the Falcons' active roster.
After being cut by two teams, Hill said reality started to set it. Rather than pointing the finger at the teams that were moving on him, he realized it was his doing that prompted these decisions to occur.
"I got cut twice so [I said to myself] it's not them, it's me, so I have to do something different," Hill said. "It definitely made me more mature, made me more open to criticism. If someone says something to me, it can never be as bad as what I already said to myself about whatever they're talking about."
Hill has been a different player since his wake-up call. His coaches and teammates can attest to the growth they've seen the 24-year-old make in the last two seasons as he's figured out how to take his game to the next level. Hill said it never "clicked" for him in his first season in regard to how he would need to become a more complete back to play in the NFL.
Between Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and now his new teammate, Gurley, Hill saw the way the position was changing. It's rare to see running backs not involved in the passing game to some degree nowadays. Hill knew if he wanted to make an NFL roster again, he'd have to become a better pass-catcher and he's done just that.
"People will tell you if you can't catch the ball coming out of the backfield, you're a two-down back, you're going to limit yourself," Hill said. "My rookie season, I came out here for camp and dropped everything. I knew I had to get better at that."
Hill's production and workload has increased in every season he's played with the Falcons. In the 2019 season, he rushed for 323 yards on 78 carries and two touchdowns, up 58 touches and 166 yards from 2018. Hill caught 10 passes for 69 yards last season.
Smith spends a significant amount of time with Hill and he too has noticed a drastic uptick in his play, specifically his pass-catching ability.
"He's gotten better at everything," Smith said. "He's gotten better with his hands, he runs routes better and it's like night and day, he looks very good."
The Falcons will most likely rely on Hill, Smith and Ollison to carry the load behind Gurley, who is expected to get between 15 to 25 touches per game. After finishing as the 30th-ranked rushing offense in 2019 averaging 85.1 yards per game, improving this area has been a point of emphasis for Atlanta this offseason.
Quinn likes what he's seen from his running backs and the offensive line so far, but also acknowledged they have a long way to go. In order for Atlanta's offense to be at its best, the balance between the run and pass game must be there.
Koetter, who vows to be a better coach in Year 2, says the Falcons' ability to run the ball more effectively will be imperative to having success this season. And Hill could be one of the players at the forefront of making that happen for Atlanta.
"I feel I'm at the top of my game right now," Hill said. "I feel I've been running crisper routes. When I get the opening in the run game, I'm making better second-level decisions."
The Atlanta Falcons have finished training camp and kicked off regular season practices. Take a look at the best images from the day in this gallery.