Just one year ago, there were few in the Kansas City Chiefs universe who expected much from running back Damien Williams.
In March of last year, Williams had been allowed to walk from the Miami Dolphins after four unspectacular seasons in which he had gained just 477 yards on 133 carries — a subpar 3.6 yards per attempt. Even worse, Williams was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
The Chiefs signed Williams to what would prove to be a one-year, $1.2 million contract on March 22, knowing full well that he would not likely be available until training camp. The contract was the epitome of a prove-it deal — only $60,000 of the $1.2 million was guaranteed.
Just a month later, the Chiefs signed another Williams — this one former Arizona Cardinals running back Kerwynn. Weeks later, the team acquired a third Williams for the running backs room: undrafted free agent Darrel. By early May, there were eight players attending meetings in the now-crowded room: Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, J.D. Moore, fullback Anthony Sherman and the three Williamses.
“Yeah, so we have some guys that were hurt, but in my mind and obviously in Brett Veach’s mind because he’s the one who did this, you can’t have enough of those guys,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told the press that April. “That’s a tough decision. There’s availability there. We figured, listen, if we have a chance to get good players let’s go ahead and better ourselves, let the competition be there and see what happens.”
So the odds didn’t look good for Damien Williams to even make the season-opening roster — much less contribute to the team in a significant way.
Even so, there were some early rumblings of what might be to come. When Williams was first signed, Pete Sweeney noticed the Dolphins had utilized him more as a receiver than a runner.
Interestingly, [Williams] has more career receiving yards (733) than rushing yards (477) so I wonder if that’s what attracted the Chiefs to him. He’s had between 20 and 23 catches in each of the past four seasons.
And in our first film review after his signing, Williams was clearly identified as a talented receiver from the backfield.
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.
It turned out that Williams brought enough to the table to make the team last September — although the Chiefs had to keep five running backs (instead of the three they had kept in 2017) to do it.
But what we didn’t know was that the die had already been cast.
On February 10 — almost six weeks before Williams had been signed to the Chiefs offseason roster — starting running back Kareem Hunt had been involved in an altercation at his residence in Cleveland. While it was publicly reported, police filed no charges and the incident attracted little interest.
All of that changed on November 30, when a video taken of the incident was released on TMZ.com. It showed Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in the hallway outside his apartment — which was apparently not what he had told the Chiefs about the episode. Before the day was out — less than 48 hours before a division game against the Oakland Raiders — Hunt was released by the team.
Blindsided by the loss of Hunt — one of the team’s most productive players — the Chiefs at first attempted to run the ball by committee. But as our Matt Lane noted after the first try against Oakland, it probably wasn’t the right solution.
The running game was more productive than average against the Raiders, but seemed to lack some dynamic ability and sustainability. This season, the rushing attack has slowly transitioned from a combination of approaches — inside (and outside) zone, counter, and power — to almost pure outside zone. But Kareem Hunt was executing that rushing attack at an extremely high level. The current stable of running backs may not be best-suited to execute a predictable scheme at a high-enough level that it remains effective week in and week out.
The following week against the Baltimore Ravens, primary backup running back Spencer Ware was banged up, and Williams finally got his chance. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, he gained 123 scrimmage yards (and scored two touchdowns) on just 16 touches.
The Chiefs were sold, and before the regular season’s final game, Williams was signed to a two-year contract extension worth $8.1 million.
“He’s done a great job,” Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough said of Williams when the contract was signed. “What I’ve seen from him — from the tape, we looked at him during the free-agent process and then once he got here last spring — just the way he moved around, his intensity, his explosiveness, his ability to change direction, catch the ball, process our offense has been very impressive. As the season went on, [we stayed] keeping him positive [and] upbeat, and when the opportunity came for him to play, he took advantage of it.”
But even so, many analysts are still expecting the Chiefs to regress offensively in 2019 — at least in part because Hunt is no longer on the roster. While it’s legitimate to argue about whether Hunt and Williams have the same abilities, there’s not much statistical basis to expect a dropoff; when you project Hunt’s 11 starts and Williams’ five (including his two playoff games) to a 16-game season, the numbers are quite comparable.
2018 Projected Stats
In addition, the Chiefs continued to acquire running backs in the offseason. Darrel Williams has returned and has been joined by free-agent veteran Carlos Hyde, sixth-round rookie Darwin Thompson and undrafted rookies James Williams and Marcus Marshall. While the running back room isn’t quite as crowded as it was a year ago, it has still led to some speculation that another running back could supplant Williams as the starter in 2019.
That is... until Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy spoke up.
“Damien Williams is our starter, and we expect him to excel in that role,” Bieniemy flatly informed the press after an OTA session on May 30.
On Thursday, head coach Andy Reid — in his first press appearance since Bieniemy’s announcement — reflected on Williams’ new role.
“Well, we’re asking him to be the full-time starter for the year — take it one game at a time and so on,” he said. “There’s a certain challenge that comes with that. That’s a tough position to play. So you have to prepare yourself on and off the field, and he’s taken that challenge. He wants to do this thing and he’s earned the right to be that guy. Now it’s a matter of production. You have to go do it.”
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said that last season, Williams made it clear to him he could handle the role.
“I think we saw it last year at the end of the season,” Mahomes explained. “The way he’s able to run the ball between the tackles, but still catch it out of the backfield. Not a lot of running backs can do that at the high level that he’s doing that. So him just adding to his game, being in the offense another year, he really is starting to understand every aspect of it. I think he’s just going to keep getting better and better each and every year.”
On Thursday, Williams was asked how many times he’d found himself in this position.
“I would say this is my first time,” he replied. “It’s something that you really have to work hard for. I came in undrafted, so a lot of teams already [had] their main guy. It’s just keeping your head up, fighting, and moving forward.”
Williams said the years in Miami had finally paid off.
“It means a lot because it starts somewhere. I laid a foundation down in Miami with my character and who I am. And people talk, it got around here what type of person I am, and [coming] off an injury or not, I was going to be able to come in and play.”
After being one of them for almost five years in the NFL, Williams said he understands the pressure he will be feeling from the younger players behind him.
“Each and every year, you know you have to [be] in a competition,” he said.
Because you can’t have enough of those guys.