On November 30 — just two days before they were to play the Oakland Raiders in California — the Kansas City Chiefs released star running back Kareem Hunt. It happened only hours after TMZ released a video of an incident involving Hunt that took place in the hallway outside his offseason apartment in Cleveland the previous February.
Ever since then, the question being posed across the league has been, “What will the Chiefs do to replace Kareem Hunt’s production?”
It hasn’t been an unfair question.
After fumbling the ball on his first NFL carry, Hunt led the league in rushing during his rookie season, amassing 1,327 yards (at 4.9 yards per carry) and scoring eight touchdowns. He was also dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, gaining 455 yards on 53 receptions, and scoring another three touchdowns.
When Hunt was released with five games remaining in his second season, he was on pace for 1,199 rushing yards (at 4.6 yards per carry) 550 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.
It wasn’t much of a sophomore slump.
But what most people around the league apparently failed to notice was that Chiefs running back Damien Williams played admirably after Hunt’s release.
Pro Football Focus noticed.
On Friday, the football analytics site published an article about the top five running backs in the red zone during 2018. Williams was ranked fifth behind Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, Jordan Howard of the Philadelphia Eagles, Nyheim Hines from the Indianapolis Colts and Phillip Lindsay of the Denver Broncos.
Damien Williams was one of the Chiefs’ many weapons last season, and he was especially effective in the red zone as he was one of only two running backs who earned 70.0-plus red-zone grades as both a runner and a receiver. He also ran for a first down or touchdown on a whopping 47% of his red-zone attempts, ranking second among running backs.
And it wasn’t just in the red zone that Williams played well. While Hunt edged out Williams in his overall offensive grade for the season, there were areas where PFF graded Williams more highly than Hunt.
2018 PFF Grades
If you don’t want to take PFF’s word for it, you can look at the projected statistical season I worked out for Hunt and another based on the five games Williams started in 2018 — the last three regular season games and the two playoff games. The two players again compare favorably to each other.
2018 Projected Stats
Honestly, this may say more about Andy Reid’s long-recognized ability to get the best out of his running backs than it does about these two particular players.
You may recall that in 2015 — when Jamaal Charles was lost for the season in Week 5 — fans and analysts were ready to write off the season. The Chiefs had started the season 1-4 with Charles as their primary offensive weapon, but with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware shouldering the load the rest of the way, the Chiefs finished the season 10-1, made the playoffs and won their first playoff game since 1993.
It took Andy Reid a couple of games to figure out the best approach forward after being blindsided by the Hunt affair last November, but he did figure out a way to make Williams effective in his offense — just as he did when he lost Charles in 2015.
You can’t argue that Williams is a better running back than Hunt any more that you could argue that West or Ware were better than Charles. But you can argue that Reid knows how to use running backs to the team’s best advantage. There’s no reason to expect Williams can’t continue to shoulder the load in 2019.