When the New Orleans Saints signed former Buffalo Bills 2016 NFL Draft 5th Round pick RB Jonathan Williams off of the Denver Broncos Practice Squad this past November, they likely did so with the intention of utilizing the former University of Arkansas star as a back-up for depth purposes at the RB position behind dual starters Mark Ingram and then-rookie Alvin Kamara.
But never in their wildest dreams did they ever suspect that now some 6 months later, the 24-year old Williams will more than likely be one of three players — 2nd year RB Trey Edmunds and brand new rookie Boston Scott from Louisiana Tech are the two others — that will help the team shoulder the load of the running game, during Ingram's expected absence for the first 4 games of the season due to his suspension by the League for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy.
Williams was signed to the active roster back on November 14th, and had been with Denver's practice squad since September 5th of last year, signing with the Broncos one day after clearing waivers following his release from the Bills.
The running back's release was surprising to some League observers and analysts, as he appeared primed to serve as LeSean McCoy's backup in Buffalo. Instead, he spent a majority of the 2017 season working out and staying in shape on the fields of the Broncos' training facility.
And now as the Saints conclude their 2018 Rookie Mini-Camp later today, the 6-foot, 223 pound Williams is poised to become a key contributor for the Saints running game for at least the next several months ahead and into the first portion of the 2018 regular season.
Yesterday after the team's post-practice press conference with local New Orleans media, Saints head coach Sean Payton said that one of the reasons why Williams was signed to the active roster was that he provides the offense with a player who has "real good vision and balance", while also noting that Williams — along with Edmunds and Scott — could help to ease the burden that's expected to be placed on Kamara.
Payton said with Ingram’s suspension, the mistake would be just to give Kamara 15 more carries. They will look at everybody. Here’s what he said about Jonathan Williams pic.twitter.com/BZghKF83Oi
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) May 12, 2018
"The mistake (on our part) would be to give Alvin 15 more carries, and that's not the direction that we want to go".
One thing that should work to the Saints' advantage is that Williams is now reunited with Saints RB coach Joel Thomas, who previously was Williams' position coach at the University of Arkansas.
After rushing for 900 yards and 6 TD's as a sophomore in 2013 with Thomas' guidance, Williams exploded for almost 1,200 yards (1,190) and had 14 total touchdowns as a junior in 2014.
Despite splitting the ball-carrying duties with fellow Razorbacks RB Alex Collins, Williams still managed to finish the 2014 season ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing yards; while earning 2nd-Team All-SEC honors.
Unfortunately for Williams: after being chosen as an All-SEC preseason pick entering his senior year in the 2015 season, Williams’ final collegiate season was derailed by a foot injury in fall camp that required season-ending surgery.
That injury caused Williams' draft stock to plummet; and after originally having been projected to be a potential 2nd-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft thanks to that huge junior season that he had in 2014, the former Razorback and Dallas, TX native slipped all the way down to the bottom of Round 5 — due primarily to that same foot injury.
Williams played sparingly as a rookie in the 2016 season, rushing for 94 yards and one touchdown on 27 attempts during his lone season in the NFL behind McCoy.
But it was last year during the Bills 2017 Pre-Season, where things took a "dramatic turn" for Williams.
As noted by long-time NFL writer and well-respected Buffalo News veteran Bills beat writer Vic Carucci, Williams appeared to be a "lock" to fill the Bills #2 RB spot behind the soon-to-be-30-year-old veteran LeSean McCoy.
He had had a solid Training Camp and strong 2017 Pre-Season, averaging nearly 6 yards per carry while rushing for 121 yards in three games which he ended with a 21-yard touchdown run against the Lions in the team's Pre-Season finale right before last Labor Day weekend in early September.
Then-still-new Bills head coach (and former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott cited Williams' issues with fumbles and "ball security" as one of the reasons why Williams was released; though Carucci notes that there were only two instances where Williams had fumbled the ball as a rookie (when McDermott was still coaching for the Panthers) and had been putting in extra time and effort to prevent it from happening in the future.
Speculation in Buffalo is that McDermott may have been sending his team a message that there was a proverbial "new sheriff in town", and released Williams in part because of a DUI arrest that he was charged with prior to his rookie season.
Williams was arrested for DUI in July of 2016 while in Fayetteville, Arkansas, after he was seen weaving on the road.
He declined to give a breath sample on advice from his agent and told officers that he had one beer earlier that night.
According to the police report, Williams had watery eyes, slurred speech and had a "strong odor of intoxicants" and "swaying balance" during standard field sobriety tests.
He was later charged with driving while intoxicated and violation of implied consent law; but he was found not guilty and was not thought to be in in line for discipline from the NFL.
He also dealt with a hamstring issue earlier in last year's Bills Training Camp, but by all accounts he was healthy and there were no other known issues to cause his release.
Bottom line: McDermott had his own personal reasons for releasing Williams contrary to what he said to the media, which he attributed to "doing what's right for this football team".
He also insisted the decision to release Williams had nothing to do with anything off the field.
"Absolutely not," McDermott said. "Jonathan is a great young man. He did everything we asked. There's none whatsoever in that regard. He did a fine job."
In any event, the Saints now have a quality back-up at the RB position who can capably provide many of the same attributes possessed by Ingram.
Respected NFL Scout and USA TODAY Draft Wire analyst Jon Ledyard says that the first thing you identify about Williams when watching the exciting back is his exceptional balance. He’s constantly moving forward despite contact, often carrying tacklers for several yards in the rare event he can’t discard the defender entirely.
Ledyard says that Williams' jump cuts and subtle shifts to slide through creases are so sudden, and then there’s the determination to be able to absorb hits and keep moving forward at all times. The lower body strength that Williams possesses to keep his legs moving against all odds, is purely "remarkable".
Ledyard then adds that Williams' most underrated attributes are perhaps his heart and toughness. He was one of the more physical runners in all of college football during his time at Arkansas, showing the fiery drive to always fall forward and fight his way through tackles.
As Ledyard notes near the end of his evaluation: some big guys just naturally don’t go down easy, while others fight their hardest to never go down at all. Williams’ competitiveness puts him in that second category.
He glides in and out of his cuts more than he accelerates quickly. He’s a little bit one-speed for the position, but he’s so big and tough and light on his feet, that it typically doesn’t matter.
One thing that Ledyard cautions however is that Williams had very little receiving production or targets from his time at Arkansas.
Obviously it was a run-heavy offense, but he does say that Williams "flashed" on wheel routes at times, and is ideal in the screen game because of his size and quickness in the open field (which Sean Payton and the Saints no doubt were aware of when signing him).
Ledyard closes his evaluation of Williams by adding that Williams' blocking (specifically in pass protection) needs work, but the big back is willing and stronger than most linebackers or defensive backs. He just has to work on playing with proper technique and bringing the fight to defenders before they get into his frame.
Obviously based upon the observation and analysis of one of the League's most well-respected college scouts in Ledyard, the Saints may have gotten a player who's more than just a "replacement" for Mark Ingram for the first 4 games of the 2018 regular season.