The undrafted Oklahoma product is entering his fifth NFL season toting a resume that can at best be described as mediocre. Many would even take that as a kind and gracious perspective. It would be hard to make a case that his naysayers are mistaken. In his three years as a Miami Dolphin (which to be fair, is not fertile soil from which fantasy success has grown), Williams’ most effective season as a rusher came in 2017. The 17’ season saw him carry the rock 46 times for 181 yards averaging out to a reasonable, if not impressive, 3.9 yards per carry. In 2016 he experienced a few flash in the pan moments in the receiving department by turning 23 receptions into 249 yards and 3 touchdowns. Even those statistics may be flattering and coating the picture in a frosted glaze, as his true yards per carry average over that time span equated to a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. Not exactly the stuff legends are made of.
Departing his tenure as a Sooner, the description NFL analysts gave Damien Williams, post combine, were as follows:
“Very good hands. Catches ball cleanly outside his frame and is nifty footed to juke linebackers in open field after the catch, displaying some creativity.”
His biggest knock:
“Lacks vision, runs blindly.”
While I’ve seen less impressive summaries of players leaving the combine, the Fins certainly were not an ideal landing spot for a player with Williams' liabilities and assets. The consistent lack of downfield play ability and sure handed underneath receivers left the RB to face stacked fronts on over 25% of his carries. For a player who’s most detrimental characteristic in their player profile being “lack of vision”, Damien was facing an uphill battle from the very start of his professional career.
Williams' 2018 Preseason Prospects
Fast forward to 2018. Damien Williams winds up in Kansas City, buried on the depth chart behind 2017 rushing king Kareem Hunt and back up RB Spencer Ware. Kareem Hunt is a consensus top 10 pick in fantasy drafts and Spencer Ware is considered an elite handcuff. Rightly so, Williams is not even an after thought in the fantasy community. Still, he is no longer in the sunshine state which has consistently proven to be barren and void of solid contributors to our fake football teams (save perhaps the egregiously under utilized Kenyan Drake). Even with the demotion in depth chart, I would submit that from the date of signing with the Kansas City Chiefs, Williams upside increased exponentially.
If Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins were a dry, desolate, waste land that couldn’t produce a cactus. Patrick Mahomes would be the equivalent of Miracle Grow in the Gardens of Babylon. Mahomes hit the 2018 season like an atom bomb. When the smoke cleared the Chiefs boasted the number one offense in the NFL leading in both points scored and overall passing yardage. The fruitful yield for the Chiefs season extended in abundance to the Kansas City skill position players. In overall PPR points Travis Kelce ranked as the top TE, Tyreek Hill as the 3rd overall receiver, and Kareem Hunt as the 12th highest RB. Yes, Hunt was the TWELFTH best producing runner in fantasy while only playing 11 games.
Which poses the question that I have consistently entertained when considering Damien Williams in fantasy. Does Williams have the opportunity to rival the production that Hunt achieved in his time as the Chief’s lead back? Is Williams' short term success purely the result of his place in the most potent offense in the NFL or does he have the skill set to find that rare late bloomer success that so few NFL players have ever experienced?
2018 KC Running Back Shake Up
After Kareem Hunt’s suspension, fantasy managers ran to the waiver wire to submit their claim on the heir apparent (Spencer Ware) with the desperation of drowning men to life preservers. Williams saw his fair share of an upward trend in free agency, but still largely remained viewed as an inconsequential handcuff.
Ware was awarded first crack at lead back duties with Damien and Darrel Williams being mixed in sporadically. While he by no means performed badly, Ware was not anything special in a very special offense. Leading the team in carries weeks 13 and 14, he was supplanted by Williams in week 15. The veteran decidedly left his mark once given the opportunity. In the three games he was given the largest snap share, Williams accumulated 70.2 PPR points on the strength of 203 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards, and 4 TD’s. This was all done on 16 touches per game averaging out to an incredible 1.46 fantasy points per touch or 23.36 PPG (2.36 points higher than Kareem Hunt’s per game average). Extrapolated over a 16 game season that would be equivalent to 352 total fantasy points, which would be less than 2 points behind Alvin Kamara’s season total.
Is Damien Williams capable of replicating that success over an entire season? Being fully transparent, my first thought was… Probably not. Every question though, deserves an opinion and I decided to make mine an educated one.
Damien Williams VS. Spencer Ware
My first proposition… Was Damien Williams taking lead back duties from Spencer Ware even justified? Based on the evidence I have found, I would say yes. As I stated previously, Ware’s production was not bad, it just wasn’t 2018 Chiefs-esque. In his 2 games as lead back, Ware piled up 149 total yards and a TD. The Chiefs also won both of those contests. So, why did Andy Reid make the move to increase Williams' role?
A further look into some advanced analytics provided some insight. A requirement of any modern era KC RB is production in the passing game. Ware, in his limited opportunity, had a drop rate of 8.7%. Which seems fine enough, until you put it up against William’s total of ZERO drops... the man did not miss one catchable pass.
Although Ware saw a meek 7.8% of his running attempts go up against stacked fronts (one of the benefits of playing for the best offense in the league) his vision ran him into walls, averaging only 1.6 yards per carry. Williams meanwhile, actually saw a higher percentage of loaded fronts (approximately 10%) and was able to cruise to a brag right of 6.6 yards per carry… Remember his biggest knock coming out of college was his lack of ability to see holes as plays developed.
Williams was also able to slightly outpace Ware in juke rate (34.2% vs. 32.4%). To put that in perspective Saquon Barkley, arguably one of the shiftiest runners in league, juked defenders at the same percentage as Spencer Ware. Please don’t misconstrue this as me indicating I believe either of the Chiefs backs are near the same level of talent as Barkley. It would be a near guarantee that if their workloads were equivalent to his, those numbers would drop precipitously. I lay that down only as an example to show that it’s pretty damn good, even in a small sample size. It also seems that it would support the argument, that perhaps William’s ability to create room with his eyes has improved over the course of his career. The most important takeaway was that an equal workload (both Williams and Ware touched the ball 74 times in the regular season) left Williams standing as the more capable and productive back. His metrics and stats in the box score both supporting that conclusion.
Damien Williams VS. Carlos Hyde
Now, to address the threat of an usurper in 2019 (worth noting, Spencer Ware is an Indianapolis Colt). Kansas City added FA Carlos Hyde during the offseason. Although I have not heard it as the popular or prevailing opinion, it has surprised me how many people I have come across that view Carlos Hyde as a potential threat to Damien Williams and in some rare cases, the more attractive starting option for the Chiefs. I won’t shade my bias in that I am not a fan of the product Carlos Hyde has put on the field. I understand that he was pretty useful in the first 6 weeks of the 2018 fantasy season as a member of the Cleveland Browns. I am well aware that he created fantasy points for his owners. Fantasy points can also paint a misleading picture that does not accurately represent the player that created them.
By now we have discussed and all know how vital a running backs involvement in the Chiefs’ passing game is. So I will start there with Hyde. As a Brown, Hyde caught 6 passes. Yeah, I did the math too... that is one catch per game. For anybody that had the pleasure of watching the Chiefs last year, you know how versatile this offensive scheme is and how integral it is to have a pass catching back for it to run as devised. In fact, aside from a standout year as a Niner in 2017, Hyde has never amassed more than 27 receptions in a single season. A total Damien Williams nearly beat in a quick 5 game stretch in 2019, only 3 of which he was slated to be the starter.
The downside from Hyde to Williams doesn’t end at his ability to catch the ball. William’s averaged 1.8 more yards per carry, 6 more yards per reception, had one less run of over 10 yards (on 60 fewer carries), was 13% more successful in third down conversion, had .15 yards more after first initial contact, and even was more efficient as a blocker with a 9 point higher grade (96.4 vs. 87.5) by Pro Football Focus.
Now it would be fair to point out how much more advantageous the Kansas City game scripts were for Williams compared to Hyde’s time in Cleveland. Without a doubt, they were. I will admit, I do believe there is some incalculable metric that most likely would improve Hyde’s numbers if he ever did see a starting role in the Chief’s offense. With that being said, opportunity reigns supreme in the NFL. Hyde has had ample allowance to cement his status in multiple offenses and has never took.
Spencer Ware has proven himself as a suitable replacement back when the situation has called for it (2016 would be a prime example) and sports .6 more yards per carry average on his career over Hyde. Still, Williams was able to be the more productive option over Ware in the same offense last season. As a result Andy Reid and OC Eric Bieniemy have given William’s their unwavering support and public assertions that he is their guy. By all credible accounts, Damien Williams will enter 2019 retaining the lead role he nailed at the end of the season.
Damien Williams' 2019 Fantasy Outlook
I would say it is fair that as a healthy component in a thriving Kansas City offense Damien William’s' ceiling would be the 352 point total achieved from his 3 game sample size as described above when multiplied in correlation with a 16 game season. While perhaps not likely, it is well within the realm debatable outcomes. I’d suspect if that were to happen, in all probability we would see a slight decrease in efficiency that would be made up with an increased workload. As a fantasy manager, I would not laugh at him being considered anytime in the second round of drafts. My stance wouldn’t vary from PPR to standard as the lead back in KC will have massive touchdown upside.
So what is the worst case scenario for #26 (always assuming health)? What if Andy Reid is getting into some good old fashioned offseason coach talk?
I don’t think anybody would expect William’s to be completely pushed to the side in favor of some combination of Hyde, Darrell Williams and incumbent rookie Darwin Thompson (although if Williams goes down, Thompson is definitely someone to keep an eye on). Even if they were involved enough to be considered a major dent in William’s touches, keep in mind, he only averaged 16 touches per game during his brief stint as a starter. Darrell Williams and Charcandrick West were always involved in some capacity and were combining an average of ten opportunities per game even during that time period from week 15 – 17. So perhaps his, floor is 15 touches per game with a 33% reduced efficiency (.96 points per touch). That would still put him at a total of 230.4 fantasy points on the year. That would put him barely behind Joe Mixon and Tarik Cohen’s total fantasy output in 2018. Gotta' love them high floors!
So, Will he or won’t he? Based on my dive into Damien Williams, I now have an answer for myself. I can say I am perfectly comfortable with a draft that results in Damien Williams as my RB1. Because I’m selfish…. Goal achieved! Sincerely though, for those who like me were on the fence about how to rank and view Damien Williams for the 2019 season, I hope this article has given you some further clarity on whichever side of the fence it is that you are planted on.