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Chiefs’ Damien Williams film review: the “receiving running back”

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New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

I wasn’t sure what to make of the Kansas City Chiefs signing running back Damien Williams.

The Chiefs, on the surface, are set at running back. Kareem Hunt is a star. Spencer Ware is a back who, when healthy, would start on multiple teams. Charcandrick West is a solid receiver and pass blocker who has a nose for the end zone when he gets the ball near it. There just doesn’t seem to be a need there.

Williams signed what amounts to a “prove it” deal at one year, $1.2 million. However, it’s worth noting that only 60k of that is guaranteed. That means Williams could potentially be a camp (or preseason) casualty.

However, given the Chiefs’ seeming riches at running back, I thought it might be interesting to see what they might like in Williams to bring him on board. So, naturally, it was time to go to the film.

Miami Dolphins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I reviewed several games of Williams in full, along with snaps from a bunch of other games (his snap count was all over the map at times), to get a feel for who he is as a player. I didn’t chart anything, as that kind of “system” is tough with a running

back, but I looked at the following:

Run game: Vision, patience, burst, balance, quickness, speed, and strength. Basically, I wanted to know whether he’s a guy who makes stuff happen as a runner or is reliant on his blocking.

Pass game: route running, ability in space, hands and blocking. Given the Chiefs already have Hunt in place, my assumption is that this is the area the Chiefs are taking a hard look at him as a potential third-down back (which is where he was used in Miami).

I’m going to start off in the run game, since I don’t think that’s the primary interest the Chiefs have in him. For starters, it was tough to gauge a lot about Williams as a runner because... well...

Miami had really, really bad run blocking the vast majority of the snaps that I watched. It is not easy to gauge a runner when there are consistently defenders in his face.

However, after watching about 50-60 rushing plays, I was able to get an idea of who Williams is as a runner. When he has an adequate hole to go through (and said hole is where it’s supposed to be), Williams can do something with it.

A lot of the physical skills that Williams has (which I’ll talk about when discussing his receiving) come into play when he runs with the ball. He’s got solid balance through contact when running through arm tacklers, and can make defenders miss in space. That’s an important trait once you reach the second level. He also (though not as much as you’ll see as a receiver) is able to get some acceleration when he goes downhill.

The issue with Williams as a runner, at least based on what I’ve watched, is the “when he has an adequate hole to go through” part. Williams appears to be pretty dependent on his blocking to open up a decent hole before those physical skills take over.

We could argue all day about whether Williams could have cut back there or whether the blocking made things impossible. Personally, I’d like to see a guy (if he can’t push the pile, which Williams doesn’t do) cut back if there’s nothing there.

The much-talked-about trait of vision is so important with runners. That ability to see things ahead of time and go to the best spot for the next moment, not the present moment, is pretty rare. It’s what separates good runners from great ones. Guys like Jamaal Charles see holes even when none apparently exist. Guys a notch below that are able to create extra space with their movement even when the blocking isn’t great.

I don’t think Williams has that trait. Remember Knile Davis? Of course you do.

All the physical talent in the world, but totally unable to anticipate where holes were opening up if the play call didn’t go exactly as drawn up. When he had good blocking he was incredibly explosive. When he didn’t, he looked like a really, really bad running back.

Williams isn’t in that same plane (he doesn’t need a massive hole to run through the way Davis did), but he does have a similar issue. While the physical talent is all there, I’m not sure he has that instinctive sixth sense to flow where he’ll get the most space. Maybe he can improve on that, but as of now, that places him squarely in the “average runner at best” department.

The passing game is another story.

The Dolphins used Williams as a receiver quite a bit, and he rarely disappointed. He’s got good hands, he’s explosive and gets vertical quickly, and he’s tough for guys to bring down in the open field. He also demonstrates solid route running and a knack for keeping an eye on the quarterback as an outlet.

I particularly like Williams’ feet on routes. Very quick, and he changes direction really well for a running back.

On the play above, Williams was the beneficiary of a blown coverage, but you can see his feet at work. His change of direction in space is generally way too much for linebackers (and even safeties) to handle in coverage. That’s a major boon in the passing game, especially if you want the option of lining your running back outside (which Andy Reid loves to do) to see how the defense responds.

Williams also has the speed to get down the field quickly and isn’t limited to quick routes close to the line of scrimmage.

It’s interesting, because the burst Williams shows on routes without the ball in his hand is significantly better than what you see when he’s behind the ling of scrimmage trying to find a hole. Whether that’s due to him being more comfortable on routes, or if he’s just better when not being asked to read blockers, I have no idea. But he’s absolutely a guy you can send on downfield routes, something Chiefs running backs did with a lot of success the last two seasons.

Finally, Williams has a knack for catching the ball without slowing down too much, as well as being difficult to tackle for secondary players.

While most running backs can catch a ball out of the backfield, being able to do so, then gather it in and get moving upfield without slowing down much is significantly rarer. A lot of players drop the ball when they try to do so smoothly. That’s not a problem for Williams, and it’s worth an extra split second almost every time he catches the ball. And of course, in the NFL, a split second is an eternity.

Additionally, Williams seems very capable as a blocker in the passing game based on the snaps I watched.

Williams is a very willing blocker and, more importantly, is very assignment-savvy. Not only did I not see him miss a single blitzer (granted, it’s a relatively small sample size), but he was often able to identify guys one would think he wouldn’t be able to see. That’s a big deal, and should help a quarterback feel significantly more secure when he’s in pass protection.

He’s also tenacious (though not that strong) and sticks with his blocks as long as possible.

I was given a little perspective regarding Williams from a guy who spends his days covering the Dolphins (in exchange for some Albert Wilson information, naturally—it’s a quid pro quo world, folks).

The bottom line

I think this is a pretty solid view of Williams based on my review. I could see him being a pretty serious threat to steal snaps from the incumbent runners not named “Kareem.” In particular, he’s going to be a threat to take obvious passing downs, as his blocking and receiving skills are very, very solid. He looks a little more dynamic in space than West, which could spell trouble for him, as that was his major role last season.

I’m less sure that Williams is a threat to Ware’s spot on the roster, depending on his health. Ware has significantly better vision and is a far superior runner based on what I saw. Again, though, it’s tough to say where he’s at in terms of health (though the same could be said of Williams, who is himself recovering from injury).

In short, it won’t surprise me one bit if Williams not only makes the roster, but also steals some snaps on third downs and other passing situations. He’s got a very “Andy Reid offense” skillset, and you can really never have too many talented backs. But I wouldn’t count on much from him as a runner at this point.

He’ll be a guy to watch in the preseason for sure.