Is Damien Williams a RB1 in 2019?

The 2014 rookie running back class was the calm before the storm. Just one Pro Bowler was drafted (Devonta Freeman, fourth round) prior to the onslaught of All-Pros Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffery, and Alvin Kamara in the succeeding years. Toss in Saquon Barkley, Melvin Gordon, and Jordan Howard (among others) with Pro Bowl pedigrees, and it’s clear that 2014 was a barren backfield wasteland. Yet the best running back from that class may not have even been drafted. Damien Williams, a UFA for the Dolphins in 2014, caught fire during the tail end of this season for the Kansas City Chiefs. He has a bright future ahead if only he is afforded an opportunity.

Primary Concerns

Damien Williams has rarely had the chance to shine. He began his JUCO career at Arizona Western College and received just 95 carries his freshman year. One sophomore season and 259 rushes later, Williams became a first-team NJCAA All American.

After transferring to Oklahoma in 2012, he split carries with Brennan Clay, yet still amassed over 1,200 total yards. He failed to capitalize upon his momentum in 2013. Williams violated team rules multiple times his senior season and served two single-game suspensions. His season was eventually rained out, and he was dismissed from the team before the end of November.

His 4.45 40-yard dash ranked fourth among running backs at the 2014 NFL Combine (you may remember Dri Archer’s 4.26 that year). Even that was not enough to compel teams to look beyond his past indiscretions and spend a draft pick on him. The running back-needy Dolphins – whose leading rusher in 2013 was Lamar Miller, with 709 yards – signed him and fellow un-draftee Orleans Darkwa (most recently with the Giants).

Williams received 36 carries and caught a touchdown but was otherwise an afterthought behind Miller and Daniel Thomas. Despite playing in all 16 games the following season, Williams touched the ball just 37 times. He scored six times in 2016, memorably dragging half the Bills’ defense across the goal line on a 12-yard run, but appeared to be set as the backup behind breakout star Jay Ajayi for the 2017 season after signing an RFA tender. Williams patiently bided his time on the bench. Then, lightning struck.

Miami traded Ajayi to the Eagles on Halloween and Adam Gase subsequently developed an irrational fear of playing the shifty speedster Kenyan Drake, so Williams started four games before a shoulder injury cut his season short. He had two more carries than Drake over that span, plus a 69-yard sprint against the Buccaneers. Williams appeared to be the perfect compliment to Kenyan Drake; a strong bruiser between the hashes who could supplant Drake when Gase pulls him for bouncing one too many runs outside.

Gase and Co. declined to re-sign Williams in the offseason, replacing him with Frank Gore. Our story doesn’t follow the ageless wonder, though. Instead, the breeze blew Williams (and, hence, this article) to Kansas City, again relegated to a third-string role.

Of Chief Importance

Damien Williams stayed under the radar for most of 2018, tallying a mere three carries through the first eleven games. After Kareem Hunt was released, Williams was elevated to the main backup behind Spencer Ware. A hamstring injury suffered midway through the Week 14 game against the Ravens sidelined Ware from then onward. Williams then assumed primary duties in the explosive Chiefs offense. He delivered a two-touchdown performance on 12 touches.

In his first official start of 2018, versus the Chargers, Damien Williams received an 85.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, handling the rock ten times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. He was a threat in the passing game as well, catching all six of his targets for 74 yards. Against the Seahawks the following week, Williams continued his strong performance with 103 rushing yards and a receiving touchdown. Williams finished the season with 51 rushing yards and a touchdown in a blowout victory over Oakland. With Ware unable to return to the field against the Colts this week Williams continued to excel. Williams took 25 carries for 129 yards, including a touchdown. He also added five receptions for another 25 yards. 

Even if you believe Ware may get more carries in a potential committee, Damien Williams has the upper hand in the passing game. His 21 targets over the final five games nearly match Ware’s full-year total of 23. It was not as if Williams stepped in and assumed Ware’s role as a pass-catching back, which was itself a continuation of Hunt’s part in the offense. Hunt was targeted just 35 times over his 11 games, which averages to 3.2 per game. Williams saw 19 targets over the four games in which he experienced meaningful action, an average of 4.75.

As a receiving compliment to Ajayi in 2016, Damien Williams averaged 2.47 yards per route run, second among all running backs, per PFF. This year, he led the NFL in catch rate among players with at least 20 targets, at 95.8%. Over the final four weeks, Williams racked up 179 yards after the catch. According to the Air Yards database, that ranked fourth in the NFL. Damien Williams is a proven and dangerous receiving threat whose talents should be properly utilized in the Chiefs’ aerial attack.

Williams was slightly Will Fuller-esque, scoring six times on just 73 touches, or one score per 12.2 touches (Fuller’s 11 touchdowns on 62 touches since 2017, an average of one score for every 5.6 touches, is ridiculous and unattainable). Ware scored once every 35.5 touches, Hunt every 14.8. This led to Williams’ 1.33 fantasy points per opportunity, 11th in the NFL, according to Player Profiler. In 2016, Williams hit paydirt once every 9.7 touches. Of course, I am cherry-picking, as he scored just once on 57, 37, and 66 touches each of his other three seasons. He does seem to have a nose for the end zone, though (I’ll drop his touchdown against Buffalo here again).

Thunder Rumbling

Damien Williams has flashed potential during his five years in the NFL and a strong finish to the 2018 season has secured him a two-year extension in Kansas City. Spencer Ware is a free agent in the spring, leaving Williams as the lone veteran in a young backfield. Not many fans know Damien Williams’ name now, but you should. His calm has passed; the forecast predicts a big storm ahead.


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