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Why Javonte Williams could end up as the best RB in the 2021 NFL draft

Javonte Williams
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North Carolina RB Javonte Williams’ light mileage, elusiveness, and complete all-around game have him on track for a great NFL career.

While North Carolina’s Javonte Williams is by no means a completely overlooked prospect – he’s widely projected to be taken in the second round and is generally considered the third-best running back in the class – he is still not getting nearly enough love in the draft community as he should be.

I am not here to argue that Williams is the best running back prospect in the 2021 class – Najee Harris and Travis Etienne undoubtedly deserve to battle it out for that claim – I am here to explain why Williams is a lot closer to those two players than you may think, and why he has an outside shot of having the best NFL career of any running back in this class.

The 5-foot-10, 220-pound junior from Wallace, North Carolina was arguably the best playmaking running back in the nation on a per-play basis in 2020, but he does not get the same amount of attention as the two backs ahead of him on the draft board mostly because of pedigree and opportunity volume.

For starters, Williams was a three-star recruit who was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 94 running back in the 2018 class, while Etienne was a four-star ranked No. 15 (2017) and Harris was a five-star ranked No. 1 (2017).

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Williams was unable to generate enough national fanfare to make up for his lackluster recruiting status because he was never the go-to guy in Chapel Hill. Williams was deployed in a nearly even split with fellow 2021 draft prospect Michael Carter, getting 166 carries to Carter’s 177 in 2019 and 157 carries to Carter’s 156 in 2020. In total, Williams toted the rock 323 times over 24 games from 2019-20, an average of 13.5 carries per game.

A lesser number of touches will decrease the impressiveness of a running back’s box score statistics and result in his YouTube highlight reels being shorter in duration, but it does nothing to affect a running back’s capability of producing at an efficient level on a per-opportunity basis.

Every player can be evaluated on the same plane when we look at their performance from an efficiency perspective. Players cannot control how many chances they are given – they can only control what they do with those chances, and no running back in the nation made more out of his than Williams. He picked up a first down or a touchdown on 40.7% of his carries from 2019-20, best among running backs with at least 200 carries over that span. As we will get into later, most of that production was self-made and not merely a product of his surroundings.

It is also important to keep in mind that a lighter workload in college allows a running back to enter the NFL with less mileage on his tires than running backs who were burnt out in school. Williams enters the draft with 416 career touches at UNC. Travis Etienne had 788 at Clemson while Najee Harris had 718 at Alabama.

Finally, Williams offers a complete package of abilities that few running back prospects can match, thriving in most aspects of both the run game and the passing game.

Let’s dive into the reasons that Williams is a top-notch prospect who, in my opinion, has a good chance to go down as the most successful running back in this class.

Producing after contact

Williams’ overall production was otherworldly in 2020. He was PFF’s highest graded rusher with a 95.9 grade, the best single-season mark by a running back since PFF began evaluating college football in 2014. He picked up a first down or a touchdown on 45.9% of his carries, tops among qualified Power-5 running backs, and he averaged 7.3 yards per carry, fourth-best.

The most impressive aspect of Williams’ efficiency is that he achieved it on his own rather than simply feeding off of good blocking. Williams is a machine when it comes to getting more yardage out of the play than what was blocked up for him (arguably the most important skill for a running back).

Among the 95 FBS running backs with at least 100 carries in 2020, Williams ranked first in missed tackles forced per carry (0.484) and fourth in yards after contact per carry (4.59). Etienne ranked 20th in both categories while Harris placed 13th in missed tackles forced per carry and 42nd in yards after contact per carry.

Williams’ average of 0.484 missed tackles per carry was 0.128 ahead of second-ranked Rhamondre Stevens (Oklahoma), about the same difference between Stevens and the 41st-ranked player.

That’s. . . pretty insane.

Williams has fantastic contact balance. He runs through arm tackles like a knife slicing through butter, almost never getting taken down by anything less than a full-on hit. Watch here as Williams cuts back, gets skinny to split the outstretched arms of two different defenders, and then spins outside to beat the second-level defender. Williams runs through a diving tackle attempt at the legs and keeps churning for a big gain.

Shoulder and helmet shots to the thighs are rarely enough to force Williams down. Here, Williams runs straight through multiple diving shots to the hip/thigh area as he pinballs his way to a healthy gain. Great patience, too, as Williams presses the line to buy his left guard time to get out to the second level and seal the linebacker out of the play side A-gap.

Williams uses his size and power to completely overwhelm defensive backs in the open field. At 220 pounds, Williams is going to have the size edge on many DBs even at the NFL level, and he does a phenomenal job of maximizing his size by running with great pad level. Williams gets low when defenders arrive, and he has a tremendous feel for accurately laying his shoulder into the opponent to lay the hardest hit possible. He displays all of those traits on this nasty truck, one of the meanest runs of the 2020 college football season.

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