Continuing our brand new mini-series Started From the Bottom, we’re highlighting some other lesser-known players that have found themselves thrust into potentially season-altering roles late in this season.
Last week, the emphasis was on the defensive side of the ball — specifically the impact Charvarius Ward and Jordan Lucas could have on the Kansas City Chiefs defense in the playoffs. This week, the focus is on the offense and how some more unlikely names could come up big.
The AP Laboratory has been burning the midnight oil even more so than normal lately as we prepare for the upcoming AFC Divisional Round game against the Indianapolis Colts — and other exciting ventures — so let’s get right into the film on these under-the-radar difference makers!
Going into this season, most Chiefs fans would have been glad to tell you how stacked the Chiefs’ offensive skill positions were — especially at wide receiver and running back. But now that the Chiefs are entering the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, they’ll be relying on some unlikely names at those positions.
Yes... we’re talking about starting running back Damien Williams and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.
During the offseason —with the NFL’s leading rusher entering his second year, his backup Spencer Ware returning from injury and Charcandrick West as the third running back option — it was a little bit surprising for the Chiefs to sign Damien Williams to a deal that wasn’t dirt cheap.
But as the season went on, it proved to be a wise move. West didn’t make initial 53-man roster — although he would later return. Williams beat out rookie Darrel Williams to be the third running back, but he was mostly used as a special teams player and rarely saw the field on offense during the first 11 games.
When Kareem Hunt’s off-the-field issues led to his dismissal from the team, Ware took over as the top back with Williams as his backup — even though when they played together, it was easy to see Williams was more dynamic. Then Ware got hurt again, and it became the Damien Williams show for the final couple of weeks of the season.
What he does well: Williams is an explosive back that may lack elite long speed but has incredible first step acceleration and lateral agility. Working through traffic, he’s able to pinball side-to-side with jump cuts. He has the ability to accelerate on a dime, and when he sees an opening, he can contort his body and can shoot through a gap in an instant.
What appears like a relatively routine run by Damien Williams almost wasn't and if it wasn't for good vision and a quick cut. Morse is unable to cleanly across the NT making the backside A more appealing but Williams thinks otherwise. pic.twitter.com/dIQojVWYAC— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 7, 2019
He’s also shown good vision on zone runs — often finding the correct gap even when it’s not the most obvious one. He’ll follow his keys and take the right gap often, but Williams is also able to pick up on details that aren’t part of the baseline reads for him to make, and then use his top-notch lateral agility to capitalize on the new information.
Where he’s improved: Early on, Williams was playing like a guy with his hair on fire — presumably trying to make the most out of limited touches. But as his role has increased, he has settled down. He no longer sprints to the slightest bit of daylight every chance he gets. Instead, he’s become quite savvy at pressing the line of scrimmage, allowing blocks to clear, and then playing off his blockers’ hips.
Even beyond the initial line of scrimmage, he’s gotten better at throttling down in the open field when there isn’t a clear path to the end zone, and allowing his blockers to pick up on angles. This improved patience has allowed him to go from a dynamic player off one cut to a guy who is incredibly slippery in traffic as he chains his cuts together.
Damien Williams is showing more patience as he's getting more touches. Still not a "sit behind the blocks and wait" kinda guy, also not how you run on OZ, but does a good job IDing the leverage and cutting inside. Shows control as he let's 2nd level blocks clear after initial cut pic.twitter.com/GFmdplpxPC— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 8, 2019
Area that needs improving: Upon his arrival in Kansas City there were expectations that Williams was going to be a real threat as a receiver from the running back position, since the Chiefs had successfully used both Ware and Hunt as downfield receivers over the years. The fact that Williams hasn’t been used in the same way may not be Williams’ fault as much as it is the fault of the offense with him to this point.
Williams objectively runs better, tighter routes than either of Ware or Hunt, but he’s almost exclusively been used on swings, shoots and screens. He’s done well on them, too — showing natural hands, the ability to control his body while adjusting to the ball, and the ability to make guys miss in the open field. Based on his skill set, it’s a mystery why he hasn’t been utilized more on seam, wheel, and angle/Texas routes.
When the Chiefs had brought Williams in, I had expected a wider variety type role in the passing game. Mostly used on screens and swings/flats was not what pictured seeing his routes, hands, & open field ability. Hope to see more vertical elements in the playoffs (Texas, Wheel) pic.twitter.com/x0qoDkikMk— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 8, 2019
Overall. Damien Williams has been a fantastic find for the Chiefs — and while his name may not have been as far down on the unlikely list as some others, his role is arguably the largest — and he still started the season as the third running back on the team.
On the field, Williams looks to continue his hot streak down the stretch, and be the spark that takes some of the pressure from Patrick Mahomes. He’s a dynamic player that can produce chunk yardage any time he touches the ball — a pivotal part of the running back position in the Chiefs offense.
Robinson is the only guy on this list that was on the team last season, but he’s making the list because started the season buried on the depth chart. The addition of Sammy Watkins obviously put another hat on the depth chart above his, and the return of Chris Conley — a very trusted and smart receiver — forced Robinson down to wide receiver four on the chart. This led to small, situational roles - often seeing snaps only when the Chiefs wanted to spread out the defense without using 12 (two TE) personnel.
Then Watkins suffered his yearly injury, and Robinson saw his snaps increase — but even then, he was clearly the third fiddle at wide receiver. After a few weeks in which Conley did not produce at a level you would expect for a second wide receiver, Robinson has slowly started having a larger role in the offense — even if it still on a lower snap count.
What he does well: Robinson can run some of the prettiest routes in the NFL — not just the Chiefs, but the entire NFL. He’s not incredibly consistent with it, but in terms of how good they look, his fakes, footwork and releases can rival any wide receiver. He has good change of direction, and possesses the body control to sell fakes and then breaks away from defenders. He’s also shown the ability to track the ball deep downfield, and have the speed to take the top off a defense — which is beneficial to the way the Chiefs offense is structured.
When Demarcus Robinson gets significant snaps, he almost always leaves the game with a highlight route. From the skip release to win the outside leverage, to the hard inside fake to fool the trail and get the S lost in a snowstorm, all the way to how well he tracks downfield. pic.twitter.com/JEtRuxg9QK— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 7, 2019
Playing with Mahomes obviously helps all receivers, but Robinson may benefit the most because he and Mahomes routinely seem to be on the same page during scramble drills. As the play breaks down into schoolyard ball, Robinson is arguably at his best — working with the quarterback to get open in a less-structured situation.
Robinson also has a great catch radius — despite having sometimes having drops because of poor concentration. When the ball is outside his frame, he catches with his hands and has the ability to extend in any direction to pull it in. He has also shown great spatial awareness throughout the season.
Try not to be distracted by the route on this one. Really... just try.
The throw and catch overshadowed this corner route form Demarcus Robinson. Fantastic route and shines some light on him getting more and more snaps. pic.twitter.com/eQRmHQ0iO5— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 27, 2018
Where he needs to improve: The concern for Robinson is less about his skills and traits and more about the mental side of the equation. It hasn’t been as bad this year, but last year there appeared to be communication and spacing issues when Robinson was running the wrong routes. Even this year, there is some confusion; there are times you can see him ask other receivers where to align.
The bigger issue this year has been the off-timing of his route stems. Fortunately, this happens only occasionally; we’re talking less than 10 percent of his snaps. Depending on what read he is in Mahomes’ progression, Robinson has to match up his route with Mahomes’ drop. Making extra stutter steps and moves can look good — but it’s not helpful if it delays Mahomes’ progressions.
The one concern with DRob getting more and more snaps is occasionally his route spacing or timing seems to be off. 1st read off the RPO and there is a lot of stutter before he makes his final break, gotta get outta the break quickly as the first read on a slant. pic.twitter.com/eUarKEAf0T— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 8, 2019
Robinson’s impact on the Chiefs during the playoffs really depends on Sammy Watkins’ health. If Watkins returns, the Chiefs’ likelihood of success in the playoffs increases — but the likelihood of Robinson having a big impact in the playoffs diminishes.
Without Watkins, it seems only natural to trust Robinson to play a larger role than Conley — and that might even remain true if Watkins comes back. Robinson adds a level of dynamic playmaking that Conley has been unable to provide this season, making Williams a bigger x-factor during the playoff push.