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Chiefs Lottery Tickets: running back James Williams

James Williams is one of six running backs on the Chiefs roster headed into training camp.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Iowa State vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Lottery Tickets is a breakdown series of the lesser known players who have a chance to make the Chiefs Week 1 roster. Leading up to training camp, we’ll be profiling the intriguing undrafted free agents and reserve/future contract players that show the ability to potentially stick in the NFL.

Why is this series called Lottery Tickets? The players we discuss are high-upside players that haven’t significantly affected the Chiefs bottom line, but the returns could be substantial.

The Chiefs have been smart in building depth and competition at the bottom of their roster. The Chiefs hit on Lottery Tickets like Andrew Wylie, Darrel Williams and Ben Niemann last season and brought in an excellent group this year to challenge for a roster spot at training camp in St. Joe.

To make this roster as an undrafted free agent, players often need to show a dominant trait to hang their hat on. Running back James Williams from Washington State certainly has value as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and could push for the final 53.

Williams has very natural hands for the position. He is very comfortable catching the ball away from his frame. He primarily was asked to run swing routes at Washington State, but his traits to notice don’t stop there. He has great spatial awareness and gets his eyes upfield quickly after securing the ball. He’s also elusive in space, making several people miss with the ball in his hands.

What’s more is Williams showed an excellent understanding of protection and a natural feel for releasing, getting his eyes back to the quarterback to go with that spatial awareness.

Williams has probably repped this hundreds of times just in games throughout his career. Washington State is running slide protection to the boundary. The line will pick up the four rushers on the line of scrimmage and the weak-side linebacker who does rush. Williams will stay in to pick up either the strong-side linebacker or slot player if they come. He’ll scan inside out for both and then release. Williams is quick to ID no threat from either so he gets out quick, clears the tackle and then gets his eyes up, ready to catch a pass. He catches the swing and had a good feel for the closing defenders. Williams made two defenders miss en route to a 4-yard gain on second down.

Williams may not be able to hold up in pass protection (more on that below), but he showed himself to be a smart player with a good understanding of what he was being asked to do.

Washington State asked Williams to cross-read here in protection (scan from the opposite side of the quarterback, which helps disguise protection). He sees the blitzing linebacker and nickel. I think if left tackle and first-round pick Andre Dillard hadn’t picked up the linebacker, Williams would have been there to take the first threat, but he kept a good base and worked out to the corner.

You don’t see running backs in college typically asked to do this kind of stuff or appear so natural in executing it. I watched a lot of teams simply not trust their running backs to do things like this. Williams had the assignment down, but his frame often made it difficult for him to execute.

Why he went undrafted

I gave Williams a solid sixth-round grade when evaluating him for the KC Draft Guide. He was the 250th ranked player on our board. I thought he had enough value as a pass-catcher that a team would take a flyer on him late. I’m glad no one did. Why did he go undrafted though? There are a few issues. One is a limited athletic profile.

His biggest problem, however, is in pass protection.

Williams’ struggles in pass protection are not for lack of understanding. He’s just not big enough to hold up against NFL defenders blitzing. He struggled against college players. He’d be in the right position but couldn’t get them down with a cut block, which is logically the only chance he’d probably have. He excelled at processing the protection, but that’s where it stopped for him.

As a runner, Wiliams isn’t particularly strong or displays exceptional contact balance. His strength is in making people miss. Although not a frequent revelation on his tape, this was a nice run from this past season that shows some ability.

Also, Mike Leach had his receiver snap the ball here. He’s a gift.

Williams’ pass-catcher traits are what makes him a desirable lottery ticket. There are a lot of guys that can run like him and most of them aren’t in the league. He’s more pass-catcher than between-the-tackle running back. Combine that with a limited athletic profile, and you get an undrafted free agent.

The bottom line

There are some very natural traits as a pass-catcher that could make Williams intriguing out of the backfield. You’re likely not handing him the ball much but to break a tendency, but the ability to run and catch out of the backfield makes him very interesting. He’s hard to tackle in space and looks extremely comfortable out on a swing route. He appears to have an ability to process fast, and that should help him in his transition. Some have suggested Williams as a slot receiver, but I think that’s a tall task. His route tree isn’t expansive due to the offense he ran in college and that’ll take some time to develop. What you ask of backs though? No problem.

If the Chiefs want to add more variety to the running back room, Williams has better hands and feel in the passing game than Darwin Thompson and Darrel Williams, his competition for the roster. His shortcomings as a runner or pass protector could keep him from the opportunity, but there is a definable quality that could appeal to Andy Reid and his offensive staff.

If not in KC, I expect Williams to be an early claim on the waiver wire on cut-down day.

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