Joe Williams – 2017’s Most Underrated Workhorse Back
In preparation for the RotoViz Radio 2017 NFL Draft series of podcasts, I was going through some different prospects trying to figure out which running backs had a successful combine. When I was perusing the data, one name jumped out at me for his combine measurables, and when I went and looked at his college statistics, the production also caught my eye. That guy is Utah’s Joe Williams.
Williams, in the words of Matthew Freedman, took a circuitous route to where he is today. Williams started out at Connecticut, then transferred to Junior College for his sophomore year, and finally to Utah for his final two years. However, after his first two games his senior year, he retired from football, then un-retired prior to the team’s seventh game against Oregon State, missing four games in the process. Prior to the Oregon State game, Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune reported:
Williams looked sluggish, lacking urgency. He had 75 yards in two games and fumbled twice, leading to a moment captured by television cameras against BYU: [Head Coach] Whittingham shouting at him on the sidelines, wondering where his head was at, before sending him to the bench.
However, upon his return, Williams ended up as a true workhorse for Utah in his senior year, and while there is still much left to be desired about Williams’ profile, he does have some traits that should transfer well to the NFL level.
Let’s start with Williams’ production while at Utah.
The raw numbers in Williams’ final year at Utah are certainly impressive, boasting a 156.3 rushing yards per game average. However, when we remove those first two pre-retirement games where he accumulated only 75 yards and no touchdowns, that average suddenly jumps to 190.3 rushing yards per game. One hundred ninety! The best part about that? Six of the seven games were against Pac-12 competition, with the seventh coming against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl, so it wasn’t like it was against a bunch of slouches.
Williams boasted an impressive 88.8 nQBDR, and that’s translates to almost the same Workhore Score because all seven relevant games stayed within the 28-point margin required to qualify. That puts Williams in true workhorse territory.
There are, of course, a few drawbacks. He was hardly a pass catcher in college, which relegates him to a role that’s likely as an early down or short yardage back. He also doesn’t have a strong career profile, with only one year as the featured back in his offense. He played second fiddle to Devontae Booker in 2015.
Williams was impressive at the combine, putting up the second-fastest 40-yard dash time among all RBs. His 4.41 time combined with his 210-pound frame gives him an impressive speed score of 111. The fact that he ran that fast at 5-feet 11-inches tall puts him on the far right side of Kevin Cole’s running back regression tree.1 Williams also passes the test on the final node with a broad jump of 125 inches. That puts him in a cohort of nine historically comparable players, of which seven have had at least one top-12 PPR season at the RB position in his first three years in the NFL.
That might be a tall task for Williams, who hasn’t shown the pass catching prowess to inspire confidence in PPR formats. But it does bode well for his chances on the ground, especially given his workhorse production against strong college competition.
One might point to Williams’ 7.19 three-cone time as a knock against him, showing that he only has straight line speed. However, as Cole puts it:
We’ve seen running backs with great speed and burst have success despite average-to-poor three cone times, like Adrian Peterson (7.09, Pro Day), DeMarco Murray (7.28) and Marshawn Lynch (7.05).
The poor three-cone time certainly doesn’t help, but it’s by no means a death knell for NFL success.
I threw in the combine measurables that matter, plus Williams’ per-game, per-catch/carry, and market share production in both the rushing and receiving games. The list of comps generated by the Box Score Scout App was both wide-ranging, and impressive.
Williams’ closest comp is former first-round pick Marshawn Lynch. A few names down, we find Jamaal Charles, a player who didn’t boast impressive receiving numbers in college but then turned into an elite two-way threat in the NFL. Williams’ three-cone time probably prevents him from being a true two-way threat like Charles, who showed impressive agility in his combine while having a similar build and straight line speed to Williams.
Then there are some less impressive names on the list, which show the possible range of outcomes. Antonio Pittman had nearly the same 40-yard dash and broad jump, and a more impressive three-cone, all while being nearly identical in physical stature. However, Pittman had a far less impressive season on the ground in his final year at Ohio State, especially if we consider the Box Score Scout is blind to Williams’ situation surrounding his retirement, understating his per-game numbers.
It’s interesting to see two 2017 prospects, Marlon Mack and he of the underwhelming combine, Dalvin Cook, in Williams’ list of comps. It appears Williams sports superior athleticism to Cook, while being equally, if not more impressive in final year production on the ground.
Williams will be 24 to start the 2017 NFL season, so he’s certainly not a young prospect. However, he could come in and make an immediate impact on a team needing a ground-oriented back. I think a poor-man’s Marshawn Lynch – albeit one that is a bit faster and smaller – is a pretty apt comparison given their physical build, workhorse strength on the ground, Pac-12 background, and below-average agility relative to other prospects. Strictly as a prospect, the poor-man’s label might even be underselling Williams.
I don’t expect Williams to become a top-12 PPR performer, despite the node of the regression tree he resides in. But the production, measurables, and comps do paint far more upside than his current 26th place rank in our most recent RotoViz Scouting Index.
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- Height is possibly a proxy for weight, or maybe for something like draft position, but either way it’s impressive to run that fast while being the size he is. (back)