One of the more unique things about the Kansas City Chiefs roster this year is the inclusion of five running backs: Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware, Damien Williams, Darrel Williams and fullback Anthony Sherman.
This roster construction would make more sense if Spencer Ware or Damien Williams were coming back from injuries, or we had reason to expect Kareem Hunt’s production to fall off.
But as we approach the first game of the year, none of this is true.
The last running back to solidify their spot on the roster was Darrel Williams, who was an undrafted rookie out of LSU. It was surprising to some that Williams made the roster at all, especially since he has to beat out notable third down backs like Charcandrick West and Kerywnn Williams.
At the end of the day, the film has to be good to justify this move, so we went down to the Laboratory and worked through his film from the entire preseason to see just what the Chiefs have in the fifth running back on the roster.
Darrel Williams’ tape (more than) speaks for itself.
Good vision by Darrel Williams on the IZ, the trap blocks lands and he's able to slip inside of it and work upfield. If Ehinger gets any push on the LB, this is Williams vs a DB with a head of steam. pic.twitter.com/J6AmN9Kgoo— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
Vision is arguably the most important trait for a running back, and from the rather basic runs we saw from Williams during the preseason, he is above the threshold you would expect for a good running back. It’s too early to tell if he’s seeing the entire box — or just systematically working through his reads — but he is hitting the correct aiming points for his runs.
This inside zone play is complemented with a trap block coming across to the play side of the formation. While this run is intended to be directly up the A-gap, the hole appears rather quickly with an unblocked defensive tackle squeezing down the vacated gap as he’s about to get trap blocked. Williams identifies this quickly, squares his hips to the back-side A-gap, and gets through the hole quickly.
He then does a good job playing off the block at the second level, working straight towards the back hip of the offensive lineman — not cutting off from him until the last second.
In the future, we would like to see Williams read the leverage of the second level blocks a little more cleanly — but in this case, the hole between the offensive tackle and tight end created at the second level doesn’t open up until he’s already chosen his path.
Explosion and Power
Darrel Williams is super quick through the hole when things start to get a little messy. As he takes the ball on the mid-zone the DT is crashing from backside & FORCE player sets the edge. Williams sticks his foot and gets upfield between the 2. Eyes stay active at 2nd lvl too pic.twitter.com/VjNfIhXKgj— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 5, 2018
Williams hasn’t tested as a superior athlete, but he plays fast — with quick decisions and a great first couple of steps when he puts his foot in the ground and gets upfield. Here, his aiming point starts off-tackle, but the edge player holds contain, forcing Williams to look back to an interior or back-side gap. But his hand is forced as the nose tackle gets upfield and starts to press the mesh point.
Williams takes the ball and immediately plants his foot to bend the run up through the play side A-gap. It’s the correct decision based on the progressions of the run, but what makes it work on this play is that he doesn’t soft cut into the line of scrimmage, waiting for the offensive line to produce more yards. Instead, he accelerates forward the moment he gets the ball to take the most of what’s there. This combination of quick decision making — and the good initial burst through line — took this play from a marginal gain to a good one.
And there’s also the little fact that he dragged multiple players along with him.
Williams is hit at the Chiefs 48-yard line by two defenders. He gets low and churns his legs — which causes the ankle dive tackler to end up on the ground. At the 50, he is met head up by a third defender who digs him out of his leverage while a fourth defender rides his back. This doesn’t stop him from leaning forward over his knees and falling forward to the opponent’s 47-yard line. It’s a textbook power finish to a good run.
Hands and Open Field
Did I mention @darrelwilliams_ natural hands yet? Great adjustment to the ball and immediate acceleration. Big guy but he's got some good feet, good cut on the first player then back to back stiff arms. Darrel is on MY 53. pic.twitter.com/TEMQExDbwd— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 18, 2018
There are many plays that show Williams naturally catching the ball with both hands away from his body — without messing up his gait. Williams was rarely used as a pass catcher in college, but when given opportunities at the pro level, he is able to properly use his hands, look the ball in and collect it outside his body.
This particular play is a good one because he has to adjust to the ball — which was thrown behind him — and then reset his feet to get upfield. The way he drags his back foot off the turn allows him to stop his momentum, get square to the end zone, and begin to advance the ball. It not only saves him time, but also valuable real estate on the field that he is then able to use.
Once he has the ball, it’s time for the big back to put on a little show in space, which certainly catches some defenders off guard. The initial foot drag allows him to destroy the angle the first defender was taking and easily shake him. Then with the extra space he created, Williams puts on another lateral cut to get outside again.
To keep himself clean, he hits two defenders with a stiff arm without even having to load it back up. You might expect this pure strength when looking at Williams’ stature, but his ability to manipulate the open field angles — and have enough lateral agility to take advantage of those angles — is a massive boost to his game.
Darrel Williams showing off his pass catching ability downfield. Great job tracking the ball over his shoulder pic.twitter.com/x81QBvyJ7C— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 12, 2018
During the preseason games, the Chiefs kept it pretty basic. Running backs generally only ran flares, flats, and some simple underneath option routes, so it’s hard to make a pure judgment on where a player is as a route runner.
Williams, however, showed us little surprise during training camp with his ability to run some vertical routes — and look comfortable doing so.
This is a running back seam route. The hard cut taken at the line of scrimmage is just to freeze the linebacker into thinking a speed out is coming — which is a common route for a running back. After freezing the linebacker, Williams is able to fluidly bend outside around him, using a chop to get free of the linebacker’s hands.
While tracking the ball over his shoulder, Williams never shortens his stride, and keeps working his inside hand to stack the defender — as well as to keep the linebacker from pushing him off his spot. Then he tracks the ball over his shoulder — right into his hands.
This, of course, is a one-on-one practice rep. In theory, the offensive player will win. But the comfort level and nuance on the route are nice things to see from a rookie running back in this offense.
We’ve all seen Darrel Williams natty hands plenty of times but it’s stuff like this that locked up the roster spot. GB shows pressure, Williams is in protection & squares up to the B gap where a blitz was shown. Scans inside-out, crosses pocket, & attacks the rusher away from QB pic.twitter.com/3g5a0HnOmT— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 5, 2018
If you can’t protect the QB, you aren’t likely to see the field very often.
Up until the final preseason game, Williams had few opportunities to show what he could do in pass protection — but against Green Bay, he did well. On this play, in particular, it was great to see the mental processing of the young back.
At the snap, Williams squares up near the interior of the offensive line — where the pressure is showing — but quickly sees the linebacker is not blitzing. Instead of staying home and helping the offensive line, he scans the front from inside to outside on the play side (the opposite side of his alignment) looking for a player without a blocker. The free rusher ends up being the edge rusher on the play side, so Williams has to quickly slide across the formation; he not only had to work laterally but also work to depth as he was near the line of the pocket.
A mistake young runners often make in pass protection is sitting down too close to the quarterback — not accounting for the big athletes who will have momentum moving them. Here, Williams shows a good initial set point, and when he has to work across the pocket, he is able to move the rusher away from the quarterback, leaving enough space for him to step into a throw.
A flat route thrown quickly out to Darrel Williams who catches it cleanly and immediately gets squared upfield. LB makes a great break & hits Williams square on the hip short of the marker. Darrel lowered his shoulder to absorb most of the blow and continue for a first down. pic.twitter.com/vKOToRuWHA— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 5, 2018
Overall, this is a great play in which Williams shows good power and pad level to pick up the first down well after the first contact.
But we can’t call it a special play for one simple reason: balance. The defender makes pretty good contact and does so in the right spot to throw the runner off — so the criticism is a bit nitpicky — but there were a few plays this preseason in which a defender was able to get their shoulder into Williams’ thigh or hip and chop him down as he stumbled forward.
This is something that made Kareem Hunt absolutely special last year. He would absorb the blow — sometimes stumbling forward — but remain on his feet to address the next defender with his feet back under him. Williams has good balance — it’s not a weakness by any stretch — but there have been some plays in the open field where aggressive defenders have been able to get into his body and knock him off his base. and Williams hasn’t always been able to regain it while falling forward.
The bottom line
Darrel Williams not only happened to come around when the Chiefs wanted more running backs on their depth chart, but also played his way onto it. He’s likely the fourth running back on the chart — and will likely remain there for much of the year — but it would be pretty easy to make the case that he showcased the best (or second-best) set of skills and traits among the running backs this preseason. He’s polished as a runner and a receiver, and — from what little we’ve seen — he’s more than serviceable in pass protection.
Williams a perfect young running back to sit behind the other guys, and learn from the reps that come his way. He will consistently get what is there in the run game — whether it’s obvious or requires a little more creativity — but may lack some of the top-end playmaking ability some of the other players in the room can bring to the table.
If Williams can demonstrate second-level vision and better balance, he could easily become a quality starter. He’s got a good group of running backs from whom he can learn. If he can pick up some of Hunt’s ability to absorb contact while staying on his feet, some of Ware’s slashing ability at the second level — and some of Damien Williams’ route running craftiness — he could be a steal going forward.
Williams isn’t likely to get a lot of playing time in 2018 because the position group is so loaded. But if there is an injury to Damien Williams or Spencer Ware — or someone ends up underperforming — the Chiefs won’t miss much of a beat if they have to ask Williams to step in.