James Williams’ story is one of perseverance, family, and the joy of sport. The Washington State Cougars’ running back had to overcome homelessness, a torn ACL in high school, and many more life hurdles before becoming an instant fan favorite for juking opponents out of their jockstraps on the regular. He is incredibly easy to root for.
Watching the NFL Combine, I was very invested in his performance and excited to see how he’d stack up. When he ran a 4.58 40, I didn’t know how to feel. It made me immediately worried that scouts would use this to pile on to any Air Raid prejudice they had and dismiss Williams as someone not worth a mid-round pick.
Performance at the combine does not equal success in the NFL, but since scouts will call Williams undersized or theorize that he doesn’t have the athleticism to cut it in the league I wanted to see if there were any current NFL players with similar measurables. Was that 4.58 40 time really that concerning?
The Combine isn’t perfect, but it’s an interesting and consistent data point when it comes to the draft. Regardless of conference or style of play, if the NFL deems you worthy, you’re invited. It gives a way to measure players on an even playing field and reinforce what scouts have seen via their hours and hours of watching film. Some relatively unknown players such as D.K. Metcalf set the Combine ablaze and potentially rocket into the early rounds, while others like Jamarco Jones could see their draft stock fall significantly from one bad drill. I imagine if feels like a Mariana Trench of pressure.
The view in the chart below looks at where Williams stacks up against every running back who was invited to the combine since 2014 (however, the data goes to 2000 if you want to filter it that far to change the view). The larger colored circles are the avg performance of running backs who went to the combine and were drafted in the 1st round, 2-3 round, 4-6th round, or 7th/UDFA. The logos behind them represent the individual performances. The 2019 avg running back 40 time was 4.56, so Williams isn’t too far off that.
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Williams had a fine combine, but he is only one data point. When I lasso selected around his name to get comparisons to other players with similar combine performances, something interesting started to happen. I kept seeing the same two names name over and over again: Devonta Freeman and James White. The former is a two-time Pro Bowler and second team All-Pro in 2015, while the latter led NFL running backs with seven receiving touchdowns in 2018 and was second in receiving yards for running backs with 751. The similarities between the trio’s combine performances, size and collegiate performances are downright spooky.
The below chart looks at the entire combine performance for every running back who ran around that 4.58 40 time since 2014. You’ll see Freeman, White and Williams highlighted below. Deep blue means that player had a top tier performance in that combine event for this cohort, orange means a bottom tier performance.
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Both White and Freeman accounted for 15 touchdowns in their last collegiate seasons, while Williams scored 16 last season. Freeman averaged 92 yards from scrimmage a game in 2013, Williams 90 in 2018. White was a way bigger focus of Wisconsin’s offense accounting for 25% of the yardage per game. Both Freeman and White primarily produced yards via the run in college, but have used their quickness and hands to became very solid receiving threats from the backfield. Freeman peaked with 73 receptions for 578 yards in 2015 for the Atlanta Falcons while White had a big aforementioned 2018 catching passes out of the backfield.
Williams may be a little undersized, but the NFL is changing — offenses are inching and closer and closer to throwing the ball on average 60% of the time. The Steelers and Packers threw over 65% of the time last season. The Falcons, Vikings and Colts were right behind them over 60%. Just over 52% of Williams’ yards from scrimmage last year came via catches. If he lands in the right system he could be a highly productive NFL running back. If we look back again at the average performance of players drafted in each round, Williams would have 4th-6th round speed, but a 1st round vertical, 2-3rd round shuttle and a 2-3rd round 3 Cone. Quickness is his game and I believe he will quickly find his way into the hearts of whichever fan base is lucky enough to have him. Here’s to a bidding war for our beloved Boobie and a Saturday celebration of him making it to The League.