[Author’s Note: I wrote this exactly a year and a day ago, but never published it. I tend to let some of my drafts collect dust as something else comes to my attention. I gave it a look today and decided to publish it. I also added my RSP pre-draft sample to the end of this analysis.]
I Hear My Train A Comin’ . . .
Big, fast, and capable of hitting a crease like a freight train, draft analysts might as well have been rocking out to some Hendrix as they sang the praises of Florida State RB Karlos Williams. The Seminole was supposed to be the next impressive running back prospect coming down the chute. I watched the safety-turned-running back and joined the chorus, because I could hear the lyrics and the music when Williams had the ball in his hands:
You know how it is when you’re feeling it: Eyes squeezed shut, body starts rocking to the rhythm, and you begin feeling rock n’ roll’s holy ghost take over. When you’re watching tape of an impressive prospect, you can also catch the holy ghost from a football game.
Ask Ryan Riddle when he saw Ameer Abdullah do this (watch through 45:40):
When you witness great chops in any field, it’s hard not to catch a little of that joy. After seeing Williams shot out of a cannon as a junior, I thought I’d still be singing in the chorus of draft analysts come fall. But when I opened my eyes in 2o14, I realized that chorus was now the echo of me singing solo to a sparse audience in a hall with bad acoustics.
I’m know there still several people in my little draft analyst community who still like Williams, but it sure seems like everyone split the scene on him. Now it’s Gurley, Gurley, Gurley with a dash of Gordon and a smidgen of Abdullah. I’ve only seen on Twitter that Williams has been disappointing.
This revised take came before the domestic abuse and robbery allegations that surfaced in late October.
I don’t know anything about Williams’ off-field life and I’ll make no judgments about his character here. But because there are allegations about him in the media, let’s get this out of the way: There’s a distasteful element to talent evaluation. You have to analyze the potential success of individuals who may be engaging in criminal behavior.
I guess it’s a little like being an accountant, financial analyst, marketer, manufacturer, lawyer, manager, or consultant who does work for a corporation, a large bank, or another industry that directly or indirectly engages in or supports human rights abuses, cheats customers, and skirts the gray areas of the law.
On second thought, maybe it is different. I don’t know, I’m just a guy who studies football talent and tries to analyze their fit within the professional ranks. (If only the world were this simple.)
What I can tell you is that I’m still digging what I see from Williams on the field and so should you. Watch these clips from this year’s N.C. State game and maybe you won’t get so distracted by the next bright and shiny light show with cool music that you’ll forget about this talented runner.
Here’s a 2nd and 5 with 12:48 in the first quarter from a 1×1 receiver 21 personnel I-formation set with the ball at the 17 of NC State’s left hash. The Wolfpack is in a 4-3 with one deep safety and one in the box along the right side of the line. The Seminoles run a toss play with one pulling guard to the right edge. Williams follows the FB and pulling lineman to the edge and makes a quick, sharp cut inside the FB.
He finds the crease backside and runs through a wrap to his hips two yards down field with both arms around the ball on the cutback, getting the first down before he’s wrapped from behind at the 11 and dropped at the 10. It’s not an eye-popping cut, but it’s quick enough to force the inside pursuit to overrun his angle on the edge. I also like how he uses his feet to pick his way inside.
In a 2×2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set with the ball at the right hash of the N.C. State 13 with 0:03 in the first quarter, Williams runs like the big back he is (something we don’t always see with big backs in the NFL trying to mimic scat backs). The defense is in a nickel look with one deep S and Williams is left of the QB in the gun with inside zone, following his LT/LG double-team of the DE to push the edge man inside.
The OLB doesn’t bite on the QB’s potential zone read keeper a read the play well and meets Williams at the line of scrimmage with a play-ending position to make the hit and wrap. But Williams drops the pads, spins away from the wrap, and turns to the right flat while running through an ankle-biting tackle attempt two yards in the backfield. Despite this rough start to the play, Williams keeps his balance, reaches the flat, and falls forward for a yard.
These are the types of impressive plays that are lost on many people who downgrade or dismiss a player due to an absence of healthy gains on tape.
This touchdown run displays evidence of press-and-cut skills that Williams could develop once he reaches the league. This is a weak side twin, I-formation set at the four of N.C. State and the ball at the right hash.
FSU runs inside zone and Williams presses to the inside shoulder of the FB towards the RG before he dips around the FB who is picking up penetration off the edge This setup gets Williams into a large gap where he uses his size and pad level to bounce off a hit to his leg at the goal line. He reaches the end zone upright.
This 20-yard gain is a display of Williams’ quickness and speed to the perimeter, which is one of the reasons why he’ll contribute early on in the NFL as a ballcarrier even if he lacks the lateral agility of Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley or Ameer Abdullah.
Seven yards deep as the single back versus another nickel, one-deep look with seven defenders in the box, FSU’s line slants inside from the left and Williams pivots before the exchange to begin his initial approach to the left. With the safety buzzing down hill to the left flat and getting under the edge block of the slot man, Williams is fast enough to dip outside the penetration. Keeping the ball high and tight to his sideline arm, Williams accelerates past a good angle of the cornerback and swats past the defender with his right arm for good measure as he shortens his stride to bend the run down hill.
As he turns corner at the 20 to squeeze inside the WR’s block , he stops his feet to duck through a wrap over top and work inside the 25 and before he’s hit and wrapped from behind at the legs at the 28. He’s never going to have Adrian Peterson or Ryan Mathews’ agility, but he reads the flow of the defense, gets his body into position to attack and he defeats contact.
That’s NFL-caliber power, speed, and balance coupled with enough vision to produce.
So is the ability to adjust stride length. Here’s a run from another I-formation weak side twin look for a first down. Although it’s a big hole by NFL standards, the footwork earns Williams the first down.
This play is designed to go outside the guard collapsing the line inside, but the N.C. State linebackers don’t bite. Williams recognizes the situation immediately and bends the play outside. Although he has to make a gather step to get inside the safety coming over top once he beats the linebacker to the edge, Williams change of direction is sharp enough to foil the DB’s angle and earn yards through a shot to his legs for the first down.
This stride length adjustment comes just before the move and it is also a response to the LB’s wrap attempt to his legs. Shortening his stride counteracts the likelihood of the contact from the defender knocking him off-balance.
Once again, note the ball high and tight under his arm. Big. Quick. Fast. Powerful. Anticipates Penetration. Secures the Ball. A team that wants to shove the ball down an opponent’s throat is going to see a lot of promise in Williams.
Especially in the red zone. Williams isn’t afraid to hammer a defense or make micro-adjustments in his path to find a crease, but he also has a feel for the larger cutback.
This 2nd and 7 with 2:12 left from the 12 of N.C. State against nine in the box is a good illustration. Williams wants to follow the inside zone and executes a fine press and cut from RG to LG where he expects the crease he spotted continue to form. But the FB misses the LB in the crease and this forces Williams to bounce it outside.
Although the bounce takes place three yards in the backfield, Williams’ quickness and stiff arm is enough for him to reach the flat, accelerate to the corner, and score. And note the ball under the sideline arm high and tight.
[Author’s Note: I had Williams as my No.16 pre-draft runner. Based on new scoring that I have been testing for a couple of years and will be unveiling to the public for the first time in 2016, Williams’ rating was good enough label him a prospect with potential to become a high-performing contributor immediately. I was a fan of the 2015 RB class that I valued for its depth. We haven’t seen it come to fruition just yet but to give you some context, Williams would have been a top-10 runner in the 2016 class based on what I’ve seen thus far.]
Williams is one of the ultimate push-pull players for me. He’s a 230-pound bruiser with a top gear that’s better than any back in this class save Tevin Coleman. Other than David Johnson, Williams has the best hands as a receiver from the backfield. However, that top gear won’t be realized on the field because he lacks the vision to consistently reach the open field.
His size and speed suggest greatness. The reality is that Williams has skills to make a roster and develop into a reliable contributor, perhaps even a mainstay role player, but he may never have all the qualities to become an every-down starter with multiple years of strong production.
A lot of it depends on the difference between what Williams displays in drills and on the field. He converts his timed, straight-line speed on the football field better as a return specialist than a running back . He’s still fast and a matchup issue, but he can be too focused on making a move to get into the open field when he should be barreling through contact at high speeds. He needs to become more self-aware that he’s a one-cut, downhill guy.
At the Combine Williams’ 20-shuttle was a slowish, 4.46 seconds. However, I’ve seen enough film of Williams taking the corner or making a cutback to the edge to know that there are many plays in pro playbooks where Williams will have the burst to do the job. He’s capable of a jump cut or a lateral cut when working down hill, but ask him to make this kind of move running east-west and he lacks that level of agility.
Right now, Williams is a good college cutback runner, but there is potential for him to transition this skill to the pro game. He has to be willing to approach the line of scrimmage another step or two closer with a deeper press before making that cutback. But it creates one of those push-pull questions for me: Is Williams not getting close enough to the line because he’s aware that he lacks the burst to cutback with the required quickness, or is he simply inexperienced?
I think it’s inexperience because sometimes he overestimates his agility, mistaking it for quickness. There were multiple short-yardage plays on Williams tape where his inexperience showed by picking the wrong hole or trying to bounce a play too late in the process. Sometimes he’ll run with his head down in these short- yardage situations and cannot generate his full power potential.
He displays more patience on runs with a lead fullback and pulling guard. He can vary stride length and set up creases. He hits the hole hard, delivers pads and bounces off hits that are from direct and indirect angles, and runs through arm tackles.
I am also a fan of Williams’ commitment to a crease once he discovers that he has no other options. He’s a strong finisher and he understands that he can earn positive yards on plays that are well defended. When there’s room, Williams can spin off contact and extend plays.
Much like Tevin Coleman, Williams bends runs downhill while maintaining a good pace. Although his stride is a bit unconventional (see DeMarco Murray), he displays good balance. He’s an attacking runner who delivers a pop with his pads against defenders meeting him head-on. When a defender is closing, he attacks the defender with a lowered shoulder and drives for extra yards after contact.
His greatest value is as a receiver from the backfield. Williams and Jameis Winston had a rapport on broken plays, because Williams did a fantastic job of working his way open if the original route failed to break open. While Winston made excellent throws with a high degree of difficulty, Williams often sealed the deal with leaping, spinning, over-the-shoulder adjustments near the boundary and often in the face of a collision. This is the skill that could get Williams onto a field in the NFL.
Williams has the raw tools to become an excellent pass protector. He has to learn to cutblock with his head up and work across the body of a defender, because he telegraphs some cut blocks when he drops his head. When he does make contact, Williams will cut through the legs with height, but needs to get across the body a little better and keep his head up. Punching, mirroring the defender with his feet, and funneling a defender from the pocket are three skills Williams will have to refine, but he has the size and athleticism to do it.
If he can iron out the nuances of short-yardage running, press and cut opportunities, and gain just a bit more short area explosiveness, Williams could become a productive NFL runner. However, it’s often the smallest details that are the most difficult to fix, because they are those tiny threads in a garment that can cause the entire thing to unravel.
My concern is that it might be best to accept the fact that Williams the running back is a seasonal garment—a committee back or role player—rather than everyday attire.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: As with the last 7-8 backs on this list, consider Williams a mid-round pick that is worth more for his potential than a tight end or quarterback in this class. Williams will get drafted as long as his off-field allegations don’t dissuade teams from taking that chance, because he’s a fine special teams player and a former starting safety who hits like a truck.
Remember, the bust rate on quarterbacks is high and there’s a good argument to pay the premium for an established starter based on career length. The most liquid currency in the dynasty trade market is wide receiver and running back. Better to stock up and use depth as a resource to get the specific quarterback or tight end of your choice.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2015 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.