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GIF Horse: Javonte “Pookie” Williams

The Denver Broncos next superstar running back is here. What does Javonte offer the Broncos’ offense?

It’s hard to believe Javonte Williams didn’t receive a boatload of scholarship offers during his high school career. A lifelong UNC fan who played linebacker and wingback until his senior year, he almost gave up football to to focus on academics at the University of North Carolina. Destiny intervened when the Tarheels offered a scholarship the day after he won MVP honors in his last game, helping Wallace-Rose Hill High School win their fourth consecutive State Championship.

It didn’t take long for the man nicknamed “Pookie” to make an impact in the ACC. As a true freshman, Williams averaged 5.2 yards per carry in a part-time role, sprinkling in five touchdown runs. He split backfield duties with Michael Carter the rest of his collegiate career and finished with 2,836 total yards to go with 33 touchdowns. I suspect it didn’t take George Paton until Williams’ last run with the Tarheels to have an interest in him, but what does Javonte offer the Broncos’ offense?

A little bit of everything, really.

What does Williams do well?

Halfway between 5’9” and 5’10” cost Williams a potential scholarship offer from Alabama, but it also provides him a low center of gravity, which helps to make him a nightmare to tackle. Weighing in at 212 lbs. means he fits what Shurmur looks for in a back, and isn’t so rocked up that it costs him short area quickness. He’s a very good athlete with elite balance, very good agility, and good explosiveness with elite play strength that routinely shows up on carries as well as when he’s asked to block.

Pookie possesses a visceral combination of brute strength and dexterity. In addition to this talent, Williams plays the game with a defender’s mentality as he inflicts punishment upon his opponents and his preternatural feel for setting up a defender defies his relative inexperience as a feature back. With a dangerous spin, stiff arm, and the vertical to leap over defenders, Williams consistently displays the ability to string moves together to make every down a living hell for his opponents.

All of Williams’ gifts as a runner overshadow the well-rounded nature of his game. He’s a true gamer, with a knack for raising his play on critical downs. His ability to quickly shudder step and explode into a break show when he’s been asked to make cuts during routes, such as when he created separation from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Beyond his separation quickness, Williams displays natural hand eye coordination to pluck a ball from the air away from his frame as well as the strength, frame, and attitude to become a dependable pass protector.

What are Williams’ weaknesses?

There’s a debate to be made about the limits around Williams’ vision. Across the 2020 season, Williams looked very good on gap concepts such as power, dart, pin-and-pull, and counter. This can’t be overstated, as the UNC line was relatively talent-poor against most of their opponents. On zone plays, Williams occasionally became impatient and didn’t allow them to set up. There’s instances where he cut up too early when leveraging his blocker for a tick longer could have lead to a far better gain. Pookie also showed an affinity for bouncing plays wide against second and third level defenders, something he’ll find trouble with more consistently in the NFL.

It’s hard for me to blame the offensive line for this issue because Williams’ 50-50 counterpart with the Tarheels found more success on zone concepts than gap. Still, I do believe these weaknesses are correctable to some degree or another. Perhaps that makes me an optimist, but it’s hard to believe a high school valedictorian who started playing running back 4 years ago won’t develop a better feel for the game with more experience and quality coaching.

Where Williams may consistently leave a yard or two on the field over the course of his career is during crowded if/then situations when he’s forced to make a quick decision as far as a cut. There’s a certain degree of sensory overload that appears to occur as Williams is hyper focused on an immediate threat. Some of this anticipatory feel in space can probably improve with time, but it isn’t a natural strength of his game, or perhaps because Pookie’s so good at winning one-on-ones, he can find himself with blinders on. It wouldn’t surprise me if Williams makes what looks like a few questionable decisions when we review the tape this season, taking a run wide when inside looked better or vice versa.

As is true of most rookie running backs, Williams needs a little technical refinement across all areas of his work in the passing game. I do expect this to improve with NFL coaching, and in limited instances Williams showed he’s a good route runner for a running back who didn’t have many opportunities to run more than check downs. In limited instances, Pookie’s had a little trouble with catches that are below the waist.

What will Williams’ role be?

I expect Williams to serve as the second back in a timeshare with Melvin Gordon early in his career, barring a potential suspension the veteran may receive from the NFL for his October 2020 arrest. I suspect the coaching staff will prefer Gordon’s experience protecting the quarterback on obvious passing downs. If Williams’ issues with vision and decision-making take time to iron out he may be a clear RB2 where Gordon receives the majority of carries.

Williams is a dynamic runner with elite contact balance and the ability to make you miss in a phone booth, so his bright future looks as if it simply depends on opportunity. Long-term, it would be disappointing if Pookie is anything other than the Broncos’ feature back, given his obvious promise and the cost it took to acquire him. Barring injury, the way Pookie relishes dirty work combined and his physical gifts, I doubt that’s an issue. If he can find ways to consistently make the most of his blocking in the NFL, he’ll be a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

From the moment I watched Javonte Williams, I had him as RB1. With the way the Broncos utilize inside zone mixed with power concepts, I believe he can become one of the best backs in football. With his ability to stand up in pass pro against bigger defenders and viability as a catch catcher, it’s been clear for months he was the best fit for what the Broncos’ offense needed from a running back.

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