TAMPA, Fla. — Former 1,000-yard rusher Peyton Hillis is hoping a change of scenery will help him get a once-promising NFL career back on track.
The sixth-year pro signed a one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month and is competing for a job to play behind Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin.
Hillis rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and scored 13 touchdowns for Cleveland in 2010, however he hasn’t been nearly as productive over the past two seasons with the Browns and Kansas City Chiefs.
Martin ran for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, but the Bucs don’t have an established backup. They are giving Hillis, another veteran, Brian Leonard, and rookie Mike James a chance to earn the role.
“I’m here, trying to do the best that I can,” Hillis said. “I’ve been humbled over the past couple of years, and I’m just happy to be in a place they want me to be and a place where I can try to produce again.”
Hillis entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick in 2008 and started eight games in two seasons with the Denver Broncos. He moved to Cleveland three years old ago and flourished in a featured role with the Browns, rushing for 1,177 yards and catching 61 passes for another 477 yards.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound running back became a fan favorite during his breakout season and was selected to appear on the cover of the next year’s Madden video game.
His career has been in decline ever since.
Injuries have been a factor. And at least one former teammate, Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas, was quoted last season as saying Hillis’ performance with the Browns slipped after the running back — eager to capitalize on his success from the previous year — put his desire for a new contract before the team.
Hillis said his focus is on the future, trying to earn a job with the Bucs — not what happened in Cleveland in 2011 or last year in Kansas City, where the 27-year-old played behind three-time 1,000-yard rusher Jamaal Charles and averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry while running for 309 yards and one TD.
“Some things in life there’s no rhyme or reason. I just try to take one step at a time and try to re-evaluate the situation,” Hillis said. “I can’t go back to my past and change things. I can only move forward. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Hillis is listed behind Martin, Leonard and James, a sixth-round draft pick, on the depth chart for Thursday’s preseason opener against Baltimore.
Coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik were drawn to the running back’s size, as well as the success he enjoyed with Cleveland. Hillis started 23 games over two seasons with the Browns, rushing for 1,764 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns — 14 of them on the ground.
“I liked the way he played, and so did Mark. We felt like he was a good fit for us right now with our running back and fullback situation. He’s a guy who brings some versatility to the position. He can be the ball carrier, I think he can block. He’s a bigger back,” Schiano said.
If he makes the team, Hillis could wind up playing a role similar to one filled a year ago by another former 1,000-yard rusher, LeGarrette Blount, who carried 41 times for 151 yards as Martin’s backup.
Blount was traded to New England this spring, leaving the Bucs in the market for a big back such as Hillis, and even the 225-pound Leonard, who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent after spending the past four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“He’s done it in this league, and I think we needed to create quality depth,” Schiano said. “We have our guy in Doug, but we need to create quality depth and we need to create competition as well.”
Hillis, who’s still learning the playbook, is excited about the opportunity.
“I’m out here learning a little bit of everything — tailback, fullback … a little bit of everything,” he said. “Hopefully I will be able to establish myself and help this team win.”