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Is it time for Javonte Williams as the RB1 for the Denver Broncos?

The second-round rookie has steadily earned more and more snaps. Is it time for him to be the starter?

Baltimore Ravens v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Broncos Country has been abuzz about Javonte Williams all offseason and all season long. The second-round rookie has had some lofty comparisons thrown out with guys like Nick Chubb and Alvin Kamara, fueling those expectations.

Williams runs with excellent balance and power through would-be tacklers. It’s that balance that drew those comparisons in the first place. That’s certainly been evident throughout the first four games of the season.

Williams has been a steady presence in the Denver Broncos backfield, taking 43.6% of snaps so far. The Week 4 game against Baltimore was the first time he broke 50% of the snap shares in a game, but it was just one snap more than Melvin Gordon (31 to 30).

I’ve been repeatedly asked when I thought it was going to be time for Williams to become the “RB1” in Denver over Melvin Gordon, so I thought it prudent now that we’re just about a quarter of the way through the season to dive into the tape to find an answer.

The answer is a bit complicated.

Tale of the tape

We know Williams runs is a great athlete at the position, something that pops on his tape and at his pro day testing.

He’s a natural highlight reel waiting to happen. When Williams gets going and has a full-head of steam, he’s an absolute force in the open field and so hard to tackle. Williams is ninth in the NFL in yards after contact per rush. About 3.2 of his 4.04 yards per carry come after he is hit. PFF charts Javonte Williams with a 37% forced missed tackled rate, which is first in the NFL (sample size issues but still very encouraging).

Part of Williams’s value is his third-down ability. Denver’s comfortable flexing Williams out wide and he’s been effective as a receiver when targeted (9 targets, 8 receptions for 50 yards).

It isn’t just his receiving chops that make him valuable on third downs too. Williams also has some really intriguing upside as a pass-protecting back. He still has some technical improvements in pass protecting and catching up to the NFL speed from a timing perspective but he’s a willing blocker who isn’t afraid to absolutely bring it.

What’s the hangup?

Despite having all of these traits, Williams has been grading out poorly across most analytical measures. Williams’ analytical profile:

  • DYAR: -15 (34th)
  • DVOA: -17.1% (32nd)
  • RYOE: .49 (12th)

Javonte Williams is in the bottom left quadrant, hovering a little under average in RYOE per rush and the furthest back to the left in EPA/rush. Not great metrics! Melvin Gordon is way up in the top right, with some familiar big names at running back.

Why is Williams grading so poorly despite his traits? It’s the critical separation between Melvin Gordon and him in the “upstairs” part as runners that I think is causing most of it. As good as Javonte Williams is with the physical side of playing the position, his mental side is still a work in progress. Keep in mind that Williams has really only been playing running back since his senior year in high school and didn’t start getting a ton of playing time till his second of three years at North Carolina.

Watch the full rep of the run I posted earlier.

It’s a simple gap power run with a backside guard pulling to clear the way for Javonte Williams. Gap runs are pretty straight-forward and generally don’t force backs to make complicated reads. The backs are generally going to follow the pulling linemen, as they’ll create an advantage at the point of attack. Yet here, Williams...doesn’t.

Instead, he cuts back instead of following Meinerz.

If he follow Meinerz here, Williams has a good runway to end up one-on-one with a DB in the open field and quite possibly a touchdown.

Instead, Williams cuts this run back for some reason. Backs generally don’t cutback like this on gap runs or at least, aren’t supposed to. You’ll primarily see that on zone runs.

Since he cuts it back inside, he gets a face full of Tavon Young instead. If Tavon wraps up and finishes this tackle, or if this weren’t a 5’9 185 DB, this play gets completely blown up for a loss. The ultimate results>process play.

This kind of decision-making and processing littered his college tape and it’s still cropping up in his NFL tape. It’s especially tough when zone runs are out in full-force as the main running style in the NFL (though Denver is gap-heavy), and those kinds of runs require a great deal more from a processing standpoint. Melvin Gordon has had time to develop his mental acuity, and he’s just making better reads on runs. While he’s perhaps not producing the same highlight-reel level plays Williams has been, Gordon has consistently executed and just has a better feel for the game right now.

Don’t fret however. This isn’t meant to come across as a hit piece on Javonte Williams in any way. There’s still time for this skill to develop, as he’s still just a rookie in his 4th NFL game. Melvin Gordon has been playing at the NFL level longer than Williams has been playing the position in general. As he earns more playing time, the hope is the mental skills begin to catch up to the physical ones.

While Williams might not be the RB1 right now and might not be for the rest of the season, he and Gordon are a great pairing together, and they’re a big part of why Denver is 3-1 right now. Stay patient with Williams and hopeful for his future while enjoying Melvin Gordon while he’s in Denver.