This running back class may not be very deep, but the top-3 all have exciting profiles and fantasy RB1 ceilings in their range of outcomes. Najee Harris’s Yards Created revealed a high-floor workhorse while Travis Etienne’s effortless speed and receiving prowess popped.
And as you will read below, Javonte Williams deserves to be in the Big 3 conversation.
Even though Williams was never a three down starter like Harris and Etienne were, that should not be held against him. Williams and teammate Michael Carter formed a true 1A/1B committee last year as the duo split carries (157 to 155, in favor of Williams) and targets (31 to 30, in favor of Williams) right down the middle. And both backs were extremely efficient on their touches — Williams averaged 7.9 yards per touch and scored 22 TDs while Carter put up 8.4 YPT and scored 11 times.
After watching his 2020 season, Williams instantly became one of my favorite prospects in recent years. His Yards Created data is tops in the class and he has an all-around skill set that will get him drafted much earlier than a lot of people might expect. Let’s dig in.
|YC Statistic||The Numbers|
|Yards Created per attempt (YC/A)||5.61 (79th percentile)|
|YC/A - inside carries||4.31 (50th percentile)|
|YC/A - off-tackle carries||7.98 (87th percentile)|
|UNC Yards Blocked per attempt||1.88 (97th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per attempt||0.474 (93rd percentile)|
|Loaded Box (% of attempts)||42%|
|Receiving yards gained per route run||1.8 (77th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per reception||0.36 (75th percentile)|
|Pass protection execution rate||92%|
(For a primer on how I chart Yards Created, head here. Percentile scores are based on the Yards Created database that spans the 2015-2020 college seasons. 50th percentile is average. Loaded Box is the percentage of attempts where the runner faced at least one unaccounted for defender in the box, i.e. the offense uses 7 blockers and the defense stacks the box with 8 men. Pass protection execution rate is the percentage of snaps where the RB did not allow pressure.)
With these ridiculously strong figures, Williams joins an elite group of backs that have all gone on to post at least one top-10 fantasy season since they joined the league. Over the last six years just 7 running backs have scored above the 75th percentile in both YC/A and missed tackles forced and they are Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette… and now Javonte Williams.
And if we’re comparing him to the 2021 class, well, there is no competition. Williams (5.61) easily beat both Harris (4.50) and Etienne (4.22) in Yards Created per attempt.
Simply put, Williams is one of the most elusive runners I’ve ever charted. He has a toolbox full of moves that he throws at defenders, excellent power when initiating and fighting through contact, and nasty change of direction ability. Making defenders miss in one-on-one situations is one of the few things that runners can control and a trait that translates straight away in the NFL. Williams is just a wrecking ball waiting to unleash his fury.
As a runner, I really do not see any weaknesses in his game. UNC’s run game was very diverse and Williams showed the ability to run with patience in their gap (man-to-man) concepts and decisively when they called zone runs. While Williams doesn’t have the sexy deep speed that Etienne has — Williams ran a 4.55 forty at his Pro Day — he makes up for it with fantastic short-area burst and mean jump-cuts when he is stopped, accelerating or at full speed.
I usually try to stay away from comparisons because they’re often overly simplistic, but Williams’ game constantly reminded me of Kareem Hunt’s traits at Toledo. Hunt had an uncanny ability to convert his burst into power or elusiveness on a dime and Williams certainly possesses that, too. From a frame and numbers perspective, the comp just lines up.
Unlike Hunt, however, UNC’s offensive line often paved some easy holes for Williams to get through. The Tar Heels’ 1.88 Yards Blocked per attempt is best in this class, just barely edging out Alabama’s perennially elite blocking (1.80 YB/A). Still, Williams consistently created on his own, earning 5 or more Yards Created on 33% of his carries. For comparison, that is just a tick better than Harris (30%) and well ahead of Etienne (26%).
The common refrain around Williams is his lack of production as a receiver, but is that even really the case? Sure, he didn’t catch 40+ balls like his counterparts Harris or Etienne did, but he was still efficient enough on his limited catches. In fact, Williams ranked fourth in this class in receiving yards per game (27.1) behind Etienne (49.0), Rhamondre Stevenson (35.2), and Najee Harris (32.7).
Granted it was a limited number of snaps, but I thought Williams looked quick in and out of his breaks when he faced one-on-one man coverage. He shook a Virginia linebacker on a must-have third-and-5 on a nice angle route and showed off a filthy move on an out against Notre Dame (and then was promptly overthrown). Michael Carter is a strong receiver in his own right, but I came away feeling that Williams was probably underutilized in the passing game.
After giving Melvin Gordon a two-year deal last offseason that was basically fully guaranteed and signing the underrated Mike Boone in free agency, it was certainly a surprise that the Broncos traded up for Williams in new GM George Paton’s first draft. Denver flipped Atlanta the 114th pick to slide up five spots to take Williams at 35 overall in a move to jump Miami at 36, who had their sights set on the UNC back at their pick.
Even in a bad rookie crop, Williams is one of my personal favorite prospects that I have charted for Yards Created. Among this class, Williams leads the group in…
Yards Created per attempt (over Trey Sermon)
Percentage of carries where he created 5+ yards (over Harris)
Missed tackles forced per attempt (by a mile)
Pass protection execution rate (over Sermon)
Williams’ Yards Created scores are among an elite bunch that have all gone on to have at least one RB1 (top-12) fantasy season. Over the last six years, just seven running backs have scored above the 75th percentile in both Yards Created per attempt and missed tackles forced/attempt: Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette… and now Williams.
I wrote way more about this here, but Williams’ limited passing down snaps revealed that he certainly has a three-down skillset. I’m in the camp that pass protection doesn’t matter all that much simply because it rarely happens in the NFL, but Williams was without a doubt one of the best pass blockers I’ve seen come out of the college ranks. His 92% pass protection execution was easily tops in this class and one of the six best figures in my database. Williams consistently showed not only the awareness to identify and react to oncoming blitzers, but he showed near perfect form — constantly keeping his hips and shoulders square when he met defenders. I’m sure the Broncos brass loved that part of Williams’ tape. At the very least, Williams’ pass blocking chops will earn him snaps early on.
Williams might be road-blocked by Melvin Gordon for now, but what are the odds that he just straight up beats out Gordon for the starting role by mid-season? Keep in mind, Gordon showed up to camp out of shape last year and then pleaded not guilty to a DUI charge in January (that was later dismissed). While Gordon may be on the outs with management, Denver is obviously enamored with Williams and probably wouldn’t hesitate at giving him the reins early if it’s clear he’s out-performing Gordon.
We’ve got Williams at RB26 in our early projections, one spot behind Travis Etienne and seven slots ahead of Gordon. It’s hard to be much more aggressive on Williams than that for now, but your approach to him in best-ball drafts is entirely dependent upon your team build. Did you draft a few backs early? Then you’re probably looking at WRs or one of the high-ceiling QBs in the sixth-round range that Williams is going off of the board. On the flip side, Williams is a phenomenal target on Zero RB or on team’s where you only take one back early. He might not be the starter in Week 1, but he’ll still have a sizable role early on to warrant taking him as a part of Zero RB group.
For dynasty, I’m probably on an island with Williams over Etienne as my RB2. I’m partially sticking with The Process here because Williams’ Yards Created figures were so fantastic, but it’s also a bet on his landing spot. I’m much higher than consensus on Williams’ long-term outlook in Denver. First and foremost, this backfield will be his in 2022. Melvin Gordon isn’t coming back after his two-year deal is up at the end of this season. Plus, the Broncos have an underrated offensive line coached by all-time great coach Mike Munchak. Last year, Garrett Bolles finally took a massive stepforward at left tackle and their interior is rock solid and young between Graham Glasgow, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Dalton Risner.
With a star-studded defense that is getting Von Miller back and added two shutdown corners in Kyle Fuller and Patrick Surtain, the Broncos should be in plenty of close games and that will allow them to run the ball as much as they want with Teddy Bridgewater/Drew Lock under center. The only thing that is missing is a long-term solution at QB. Still.
Consistently created on his own and made defenders miss. His 0.474 missed tackles forced per attempt is fifth-best in my database, trailing only Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and John Kelly (pour one out).
Fantastic contact balance, power, and change-of-direction ability. 47% of Williams’ missed tackles were by power and 33% were through elusiveness.
Impressed with Williams’ decision-making and vision, especially considering he has fairly limited live game reps at UNC (366 career carries). Sometimes backs that aren’t full-time starters are inconsistent or bounce runs and Williams certainly showed he can be a sustaining inside runner. His 4.31 YC/A on his carries in between the tackles was actually slightly better than Harris (4.08).
Williams is by far and away the best pass blocker in the class. His 92% pass protection execution is tied for the fourth-best rate I’ve ever charted. Showed fantastic anticipation and constantly squared his hips to meet oncoming blitzers. Coaches will love that and immediately be able to trust him to not get their QB blown up when blitzed.
- Williams doesn’t have game-breaking speed, but I really don’t think that matters. His short-area burst between 2-5 yards is more than good enough to work in the NFL.
- The only question I have surrounding Williams’ projection into the NFL is his passing down ability. And it’s the only thing that you can technically hold against him compared to Harris and Etienne. Harris blew me away with his nimbleness and explosiveness in and out of breaks and Etienne can run past just about anyone. The flashes were good, but what is Williams’ calling card in the passing game?