Joe Williams should have been included in the 2017 Inside the Pylon Draft Guide. That’s what I was saying in January. As it was, my fellow running back scouts and the big four of Jon Ledyard, Jeff Feyerer, Shane Alexander, and Dan Hatman decided he was not a top 100 player in this draft. By draft position, my colleagues were correct: Williams was picked with the 121st selection. However, if we had been in an ITP war room I would have pounded the table for the former Utah running back.
In the evaluation process, some scouts and teams were put off by Williams’s decision to quit football. This extended to the San Francisco 49ers, with head coach Kyle Shanahan having to convince general manager John Lynch to put Williams back on the board on the morning of the draft. It can be off-putting when a player quits football, with an unshakeable commitment to the game being necessary to succeed in the pros. Yet Williams’s circumstances were extreme, with the player suffering from depression after his seven-year-old sister died in his arms.
Williams’s return to Utah was not half-hearted. Following overwhelming injuries in the Utah running back room, Williams came back. He rushed for 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games to finish the 2016 season. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and set the school record for rushing yards per game with 156.3 yards per game. He broke the school record for single game rushing yards with 332 on the road at UCLA.
Though the production is impressive, box-score scouting alone is a bad method for judging potential pro talent. There is a bigger reason why the 49ers traded up for Williams; the back is athletic and displayed numerous NFL level traits. Measuring in at 5’ 11’’ and 210 pounds in Indianapolis, he ran a 4.41 40 yard dash.
This athleticism is apparent on tape, where he presses the line of scrimmage well – with little dancing – and explodes through holes. He has great lateral agility and footwork, possessing the ability to strongly cut off either foot, which extends to brilliant footwork. He also takes advantage of smaller spaces by getting skinny through the hole without losing speed.
Williams fits Shanahan’s offensive scheme perfectly, as he presses the LOS, reads the aiming point, and cuts well. San Francisco’s predominantly outside zone rushing attack is one that will rely on the offensive line moving with the play, creating aiming points for a running back – be it outside, an alley, or a cutback lane.
While Utah’s rushing attack was mainly based in the power game rather than zone, Williams still demonstrated traits that translate to Shanahan’s scheme. The following is an example of Williams showing interchangeable traits on a split zone play:
In a split zone play, the offensive line steps to the open side of the formation, trying to work to the second level of the defense and block within their designated zones. This results in the linebackers flowing downhill toward the playside. The backside edge defender is therefore unblocked by the offensive line and isolated in defending the cutback. He receives a crackback block from the wingback, who must kick him out by coming back across the formation.
In this example, quarterback Troy Williams (#3) makes the decision to hand the ball off rather than throw it to the bubble screen in the post-snap Run Pass Option. The wingback, tight end Evan Moeai (#18), misses the backside defender as he comes across the formation. However, this may have been deliberate, as he appears to be involved with the pass element built into this play. Regardless, the lack of contact between the two players is no issue, as the backside defender is still occupied by the mere presence of Moeai. The cutback lane is still created.
This play gives Williams three options as he presses the line of scrimmage. He can “bounce” the run outside, he can continue on his path on a “bang”, or he can cutback on a “bend” to a potential running lane created by the wingback’s crackback “block”. Williams, after his third step, reads the field correctly. He recognizes the linebackers flowing to the playside, and sees the open cutback lane. He makes the correct cut and “bends”, lowering his pads to churn for the first down.
As stated above, though, the staple of Shanahan’s offense is the outside zone run play. This involves the offensive line taking a kick step / zone step to the play side. They will move the defense laterally, aiming to pin them inside. They also want to get to the second level, but most allow the linebackers come to them. By the offensive linemen’s third step, if they have not pinned their defender inside with a “rip” technique (where covered men with help from an uncovered backside linemen attempt to rip through the defender), they will try to “run” their man to the sideline via a reach block.
The importance of the third step in the “rip and run” technique is not just restricted to the offensive line. The tailback, by his third step, must make a decision on where to cut upfield.
This is based on reading the two playside defenders on the end of the line of scrimmage. He makes the read once he has reached his aiming point; the outside hip of where the tight end starts. If there is no tight end, he envisions the alignment.
If man number one on the end of the line of scrimmage is hooked, with his helmet inside, the back will “bounce” the run outside of the tight end. If man number one’s helmet is outside the tight end and man number two is sealed, he will “bang” the read between the two of them. Finally, if man number one and man number two both have their helmets outside the tight end’s original spot, the running back will “bend” the ball on a cutback inside man number two:
Here, Devonta Freeman is the tailback running the outside zone play against the defense who finished second in DVOA rush defense. Shanahan’s Atlanta Falcons face a 1st and 10 on Seattle’s 28, trailing the Seattle Seahawks 17-10 with 7:31 remaining in the third quarter.
The Falcons offensive line does an excellent job blocking this up right from the snap. Most importantly, the strength of the 4-3 under formation – the weakside 3 tech (Rubin) – gets reached by right guard Chris Chester (#65). With man number two out of the play, it allows man number one to be combo blocked. Freeman, after his third step, sees that man number one – defensive end Cassius Marsh (#91) – is outside the tight end’s original alignment, and that man number two – defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (#77) – is sealed. Freeman correctly decides to take the “bang” read, one-cutting and rushing between the two defenders for 9 yards:
This is exactly the sort of patience, read and cut that Williams showed in college.
For the 49ers, Williams can be kind of a Tevin Coleman while Carlos Hyde can be a Devonta Freeman. Williams is more of a shifty back, whereas Hyde is more of a thumper. This direct comparison falls short in a number of areas, including Williams’ poor catching ability. He dropped five of 27 catchable passes in his two seasons in Utah. That is admittedly a small sample size, but on tape Williams too frequently lacked focus and displayed heavy hands that he failed to extend away from his frame. Contrast this to Coleman and Freeman, who had 461 and 421 receiving yards respectively in 2016. The players are not exactly alike, but their roles will be.
Shanahan’s positive evaluation of Williams is one that recognizes the player’s fit. “He has the ability to make all the cuts, the ability to be a very good back in this league,” the new head coach said. Williams can make the required reads and cuts, and has the explosiveness to succeed. Shanahan’s evaluations and offense throughout history has led to success for backs who, like Williams, received little hype pre-draft. Look at sixth-round picks Terrell Davis and Alfred Morris for just a couple of examples.
In Joe Williams, Kyle Shanahan might have found himself another steal…