The Gut Check No. 429: RB Jamaal Williams

Matt Waldman sees signs that the light is coming on for Packers RB Jamaal Williams. Will it be fantasy relevant? 

Jamaal Williams is one of my favorite running backs in this rich 2017 class. "Favorite" doesn't always equate to most talented, but talent is a significant part of the equation.

His athletic metrics are far from eye-popping, but they meet the baselines for a professional. The qualities that caught my eye about Williams' play were things that many football writers don't quantify or mistakenly label as intangibles when they are quantifiable: 

  • Accurate decision-making within the context of the blocking design. 
  • Accurate diagnosis of pass protection assignments. 
  • Repeatable and effective pass protection techniques. 
  • Stride length and stride pace techniques that coincide with appropriate decision-making witin the context of the blocking design. 
  • Pad level and balance that's effective within the context of the blocking design and finishing plays.

Most importantly, all of these points are also graded through an NFL Lens — will these behaviors translate against NFL-caliber athletes and technicians? 

Williams' understanding and execution of various blocking schemes (vision), power, balance, stamina, pass protection, and receiving were notable at BYU. While never showing off the speed of an obvious game breaker, Williams delivered a lot of explosive runs (runs of at least 12 yards) against top competition. 

I also saw quickness that belied his workout metrics. We see this with successful ball carriers and receivers whose understanding of the game and their position is strong enough that they play faster than their measured times. Players who are technically sound with their footwork within context of their positional responsibilities are good at reading what unfolds in front of them, and that enhanced processing speed and streamlined reaction is why slower receivers and runners earn better separation and yardage than their more celebrated athletic peers.

Remember, workout metrics approximate on-field behaviors and it's often a distant approximation that doesn't do a good enough job of integrating the variety of physical and mental skills that happen on the field. While there are ways to run the numbers and show that metrics are a predictor of success, the methodology doesn't account for inherent biases with draft-day and coaching biases that come into play every year: 

  • Draft-day decisions have a heavy dose of risk-management that factors in far more than talent and skill. 
  • Personnel decisions and depth chart assignments give high-round picks significantly more chances to succeed (and fail) than talented players picked later (or not at all) who later prove they had high-round talent but their risk-management criteria was too high to select early. 

It's why Williams caught the eye of those who have this perspective. Former Colts, Panthers, and Bills GM Bill Polian is one of these people. While his track record with running backs wasn't perfect, Polian led personnel teams that selected or signed Thurman Thomas, Carwell Gardner, Tim Biakabatuka, Fred Lane, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Vick Ballard

These eight backs were all capable NFL players who, at worst, delivered valuable contributions and at best, had years as Pro-Bowl caliber runners. Daily Herald reporter Jared Lloyd reported what Polian had say about Williams during the 2017 Reese's Senior Bowl:

"He's got really good size but he's compact with a low center of gravity," Polian told the audience. "He's tough, he hits the hole hard and has got good balance. He runs through tackles and you have to be able to do that in the NFL, since there are few clean holes."

Polian later in the broadcast broke things down into a little more detail, saying Williams has the three things you look for in a running back.

"First, he's compact," Polian said. "He's a small target. You don't look for anyone over 6-foot-1. Second, he's got acceleration in the hole. He hits the hole, puts his foot in the ground, and then he's at his top speed in 1-to-2 steps. You think of (Pittsburgh's) Le'Veon Bell. Holes in the NFL don't stay open long so you have to blow through at 100 mile per hour."

The third thing Polian emphasized was Williams' balance.

"He can take a hit and keep his balance," Polian said. "He did that exceptionally well at BYU. He's also an every-down back because he can block and catch as well."

There are some things to parse about this statement, otherwise it's easy to gloss over the subtlety of a few of his comments. Chief among them is the reference of Bell. Polian is not comparing Williams' overall game to Bell; he's explaining that NFL running backs must hit holes decisively and Bell is an easy example of a back who does this. 

The backs I would stylistically compare to Williams — not depth of talent, but players who Williams' way of playing owes a debt to — are Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, and Ricky Watters. For those of you who have a tough time getting past the name value of comparisons, let's break it down:

  • All three backs are strong receivers and blockers. 
  • They lacked blazing speed, but they ran with stamina — think of Marshawn Lynch's longest runs where he runs through hits and wraps and weaves around pursuit angles and doesn't seem to lose his pace.
  • They were quicker than fast and could turn losses into gains with efficient and creative footwork in a short area, tackle-breaking balance, and relentless effort to finish plays strong.
  • They had the acumen that didn't limit them to one type of run blocking scheme.

If I were to compare Williams' depth of talent to these backs, he projects closer to Watters than the two Hall of Famers at the top end of the spectrum. Watters was compiled 14,891 yards from scrimmage and 91 touchdowns over the course of a 10-yard career. Like Williams, Watters wasn't a speedster, but had season-long gains between 23 and 65 yards during his career as a starter with three teams. 

Watters was an efficient and productive work horse, averaging 262 carries and 42 receptions per season. I would even consider this production a greater upside than what I expect from Williams in an Aaron Rodgers offense if he develops into the Packers' every-down back. 

After what we saw unfold with the Packers running backs this summer and early fall, most have dramatically revised their expectations of Williams thanks to the emergence of Aaron Jones — a back I also liked.  Ever since the day Green Bay selected Williams and Jones, I've stated that an injury could be the difference between one earning the starting job ahead of the other. Their skills are different, but their overall talents are that close. 

Even before Jones took over, Williams' burst, quickness, and vision as the Packers' No. 2 RB were not matching what I saw from him at BYU. His decisions were conservative:

Find the first crease, hit it, and push.

Protect the ball.

Don't take any chances that could bite you.

Compared to Jones, Williams looked mediocre. Without more information, I had three possible assessments for what I saw:

  1. Williams' minor injuries in camp were slowing him down.  
  2. Williams was trying too hard not to make a mistake and overthinking — something Christian McCaffrey (and many rookies) said made him slower early on.
  3. Williams was simply slower than I projected and I didn't accurately account for the speed of the NFL game. 

Because of there were a couple of preseason runs where Williams successfully bounced or cutback against competent NFL athletes, I've been more inclined to think Williams' issues were in line with the first two points. 

After seeing Williams against the Bears last weekend, there's more evidence that his previous mediocre production on a per-carry basis wasn't the true realization of his skills. From the beginning, I saw a little more bounce from Williams with a gradual increase in confidence as the game progressed. 

Williams' first carry isn't a deep press of the line of scrimmage behind the fullback, but he made a good cut to get inside of No. 94 getting free of tight end Lance Kendrick on the edge. This is good anticipation of the edge penetration, which factors into Williams' decision to make the cut a little earlier than some might recommend. 

 

Williams I formation

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 4:35pm PST

Although it's the hit from backside pursuit that propels Williams forward the final two yards, he pulls through the reach of defensive tackle Eddie Goldman well beforehand and he's in position to push forward and twist through the head-on contact for extra yards.

The reason the Packers had Williams above Aaron Jones on the depth chart was pass protection. Here's a sound cut-block on emerging talent Leonard Floyd that opens the crease for a toss to the fullback in the flat. 

 

Williams cut block

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 4:38pm PST

This is an underrated block because a lot of running backs have difficulty approaching the cut properly when the defender is tight to the line of scrimmage. They are often afraid of making contact with players working inside of the attempt and getting hurt. Williams' aiming point is strong and accurate. 

As mentioned earlier, Williams' acceleration has been missing from his play. However, the two plays in this clip demonstrate that burst that I haven't seen since BYU. The first play is a good press and cut to bounce outside for a quality gain. The second, is only a three-year gain but the burst is notable. 

 

This is the burst I have been waiting to see from J Williams m. Light slowly coming on?

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 4:52pm PST

It may be a bit of projection of what happens in the next clip, but Williams nearly breaks through a wrap to his leg after clearing much of the crease on this 4th and 1 run and you can tell he's excited and frustrated by coming so close to breaking the play. 

 

Williams nearly breaks it

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 4:54pm PST

 The pad level is strong and the burst is back. He's not plodding and pushing, he's accelerating with the confidence of a back who anticipates the crease and knows what's possible. 

It's at this point, where Williams begins looking more like the back I saw at BYU: agile, shifty, sliding through reaches, and driving through contact. The upper body is more active with setting up cutbacks and fending off defenders. This is a back who is loosening up and feeling more comfortable. 

 

Williams with nifty run for first down

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 4:57pm PST

The initial cut inside is a nice plant  with good hip flexibility and he's slicing and dicing with control. But it's that upper-body work with the arms that is notably different. Here's a short-yardage run where Williams uses his free arm to work through the wrap of a defender in the crease for the first down. 

 

Williams 4 yds

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 5:10pm PST

Note that the above play is a gap play, which we haven't seen him run yet in this game. Williams has experience with multiple types of blocking schemes and as he's gaining confidence behind a healthier offensive line, the staff is diversifying the playbook.  Williams hits the side of his pulling blocker as he enters the crease but he's trying to minimize the contact from No. 38 to his left. He's effective with his approach thanks to his low pad level and the confidence to use his free arm as he pushes through. It's this small detail that has been missing from his game early on. 

This final play is vintage BYU Williams. It's a 2nd-and-4 run that he bounces right to avoid interior penetration, stiff-arms Leonard Floyd in the backfield to get the corner, lowers his pads into the defensive back and runs him over, and pushes the second defensive back from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker. 

 

J Williams kicking ass thru 3 players

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 12, 2017 at 5:19pm PST

It reminds me of these two runs from the BYU-Arizona game last year (1:41 and 1:51). 

The runs are different, but the second effort, balance, and power are similar. In fact, I'd argue Sunday's run is harder because Williams had much less space to generate momentum. It means that Sunday's run demanded greater short-area explosion, leverage, and vision.  

Add this up, and there are signs that the light is coming on for Williams. While stat-line truthers will see the 20-for-67 box score and think, meh, Williams converted multiple short-yardage plays in well-defined run situations that the Bears were anticipating.

The bigger question is whether it matter this year for fantasy owners.

With Ty Montgomery day-to-day with a potential aggravation of his ribs injuries, the short-term answer is yes. Even if Montgomery is slated to play, it's unlikely he earns a full workload with the way Williams performed in Chicago. It's also likely that the Packers could be more cautious with Montgomery due to the fact that he aggravated the injury. 

Montgomery's pass protection remains a weak point of is game, which could also mean he's restricted to receiving duties split from the formation. Expect Williams to carry the load and don't be surprised if a strong showing once again forces Montgomery into the background of the Packers' depth chart.

Will it happen? I'm adding Williams because of my analysis of his talent and recent exhibition of increased comfort. I'm also encouraged that Mike McCarthy did a better job of opening up the passing game for Brett Hundley and allowed the young quarterback to make some big-time throws in key moments against the Bears. 

Hundley looked more like the promising downfield thrower we saw in relief of Aaron Rodgers against the tough Vikings defense. Hundley's (and McCarthy's) incremental development and a healthier Packers offensive line should force defenses to respect the pass a little more and prevent as much cheating at the line of scrimmage to stack boxes.  

Even so, I'm not expecting a massive breakout as much as production dictated by match up. Williams will have spot-start opportunities during the next four weeks against the Ravens, Steelers, Buccaneers, and Browns.

While the Ravens have limited its past two opponents — Miami and Tennessee — to 100 total yards on 36 touches among four backs, these weren't healthy backfield situations. The three weeks prior, Baltimore gave up 452 yards on 105 attempts to the Vikings, Bears, and Raiders. I'm not even counting the 40-carry, 171-yard pasting from the Steelers' ground game four weeks ago. 

If Williams had a big week against Baltimore, he'll be a must-start against the next four units. If not, but he has a similar effort where his play exceeds the limited context of the box score, he'll be a flex-play or spot-start against Tampa Bay and Cleveland. 

If he fails big-time during the next two weeks, I'll reassess based the tape and report back in Monday's The Top 10.   


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