Special thanks to Ronnie Evans for his contributions to this article.
This study is going to be in three parts:
- What did Javonte Williams do in 2021 and how does it compare to his peers?
- How have Nathaniel Hackett’s offenses used running backs in his gigs as offensive coordinator?
- How have running backs benefitting from playing with Russell Wilson in Pete Carroll’s run-first offense?
Part 1: What He Did
Javonte Williams carried the ball 203 times in 2021 for 903 yards, 52 first downs and four touchdowns for the Denver Broncos. In the passing game he was targeted 53 times, catching 43 of them for 316 yards, twelve first downs and three touchdowns. He is “credited” with three dropped passes and he fumbled twice. His 35 broken tackles led the NFL and he was second only to Ke’Shawn Vaughn for broken tackle rate (min 35 carries). Pookie had a broken tackle rate of 17.2 percent - meaning that he brought a tackle on one of every six times he touched the ball. Vaughn had a higher rate, but only touched the ball 40 times in 2021.
Williams was 22nd among qualifiers in average yards per carry (19th among running backs).
According to NFL NextGen Stats, he faced stacked boxes (8 or more defenders) on 20.7 percent of his carries which was 30th among 52 qualifying running backs. Melvin Gordon faced stacked boxes 31.0 percent of the time which was the 11th highest. Only two running backs faced stacked boxes more than 40 percent of the time - D’Onta Foreman (46.6) and Rhamondre Stevenson (41.4). Only one running back faced stacked boxes less than ten percent of the time - Clyde Edwards-Helaire (8.4) - among qualifiers (min 90 carries).
Williams was either patient or indecisive as he was 50th of 52 in average time spent behind the LOS. He spent 2.99 seconds on average behind the LOS. Some of this could have been attributed the OL which was 19th worst in the league at getting runs stuffed (by FootballOutsiders.com ). In you are having to break tackles behind the LOS, it’s going to force you to spend more time in the backfield on average than someone who is not having to do so.
NGS shows that he was not a “north-south” runner, which their efficiency metric measures. Pookie was 45th of 52 in efficiency. Efficiency in running backs
Pookie had an efficiency of 4.21. Mike Davis was the least efficient at 4.54 and Rashaad Penny was the most at 2.87. Penny was the only qualifier below 3.0. If you look at the handful of carry charts that are available at NGS for Pookie, you see that he did spend a fair amount of time running east-west.
In terms of rushing yards over expected (RYOE), Pookie was 10th with 70. Meaning that he gained 70 more yards than an “average” running back would have been expected to gain given the blocking he received. The best RYOE in 2021 belonged to Jonathan Taylor at 481. Nick Chubb was second with 269 and Penny was third with 246. No other RB had more than 154. Melvin Gordon was 8th at 93. Alvin Kamara was the worst in this with a value of negative 133. Only two other qualifying RBs had values less than negative 100: Chuba Hubbard at -122 and Mike Davis at -105.
In terms of DVOA (football outsiders), Pookie was 41st of 50 (min 100 carries). Pookie’s success rate was 36th (48 percent). A.J. Dillon led the league with a success rate of 63 percent) while D’Andre Swift was worst at 36 percent. A.J. Dillon was carrying the ball last season in Hackett’s offense - although I don’t know if the play caller has too much affect on RB success rate. You could make that argument though, since both Packer RBs had high success rates in 2020 (Jones - 59 percent and Williams 58) and 2019 (Jones - 56, Williams - 53). You could also chalk this up to Aaron Rodgers and not Hackett.
For what it’s worth Aaron Jones faced stacked boxes at these rates in 2021, 2020 and 2019: 14.0, 19.4 and 20.8 percent. AJ Dillon saw a stacked box 21.4 percent of the time in 2021 and Jamaal Williams saw one 19.3 and 20.6 percent of the time in 2020 and 2019. The presence of Aaron Rodgers was not forcing teams to go with light boxes to stop the pass like they did with Patrick Mahomes in KC last season. Edwards-Helaire had the lowest stacked box level (8.4 percent) and Darrel Williams was also near the bottom (13.2).
Taken together, all of these stats tell us that Pookie is a powerful back who is still learning how to play running back after spending much of his football career as a linebacker. It is not an exaggeration to say that he plays the running back position like a linebacker would. His growth as running back could catapult him from good to great. His combination of size and power could have him being compared to pre-injury Saquon Barkley, if he can learn the “RB craft”.
Part 2: How Hackett has used his Running Backs
Nathaniel Hackett was an offensive coordinator in the NFL for eight seasons before he became the head coach of the Broncos. His offenses have twice led the league in rushing attempts (2013 Buffalo and 2017 Jacksonville) and they usually are in the top third in total rushing attempts. Only three of eight seasons did his offense rank 14th or higher in rushing attempts.
In 2013 the Bills split their carries about 50/50 between Fred Jackson (206 carries) and C.J. Spiller (202). Both were used about equally in the passing game as well. The next season in Buffalo saw three different running backs getting 78 or more carries with Jackson leading the group (141).
In 2016 with the Jaguars, T.J. Yeldon (130) and Chris Ivory (117) splits the carries relatively evenly. QB-turned-RB Denard Robinson also had 48 carries. Blake Bortles was third on the team with 58 carries for 359 yards. Yeldon had more than twice the catches that Ivory had. The next season in Jacksonville, the Jags had used a high draft pick on Leonard Fournette, so he got the lion’s share of the carries (268). Ivory was still on the team and was the second string back with 112 carries. Yeldon only had 49 carries but had almost as many catches (30) as Fournette (36), despite being RB3 on the depth chart.
In the following season in Jacksonville, Fournette would be on pace to match his rookie season when he would get hurt and miss half the year. He finished with 133 carries in 8 games. Yeldon got 104 carries and 55 catches. Carlos Hyde got 58 carries.
Hackett moved north to Green Bay for 2019 season. His time with the Packers is probably the most indicative of the offense we will see in Denver since he didn’t have an elite QB in Buffalo or Jacksonville. He had one in Green Bay and now he has one in Denver.
The Packers 2019 offense had a bell-cow back with Aaron Jones getting the majority of the carries (236) and RB targets (68). Jamaal Williams was RB2 with 107 carries and 45 targets. The Packers did not have a RB3. Aaron Rodgers had 46 carries and no other Packer had more than six carries during that season. The next season in Green Bay saw a similar split in carries between Jones (201) and Williams (119) along with a similar split in targets (63 and 35). Rookie A.J. Dillon was given some touches with 46 carries but only two targets.
Last season the Packers moved to a 50/50 split between Dillon and Jones in terms of carries (187 to 171), but Jones was still more heavily used in the passing game with almost twice the targets (65 to 37).
So I conclude that Hackett prefers to use a 50/50 split if he can, but will not hesitate to feed a good/great RB the ball if the talent difference between the top two running backs is large (Jones in 2019 and Fournette in 2016).
I expect the Broncos to draft a running back. With only Williams, veteran Mike Boone and former UDCFA, Damarea Crockett, on the roster as RBs. Boone has 75 career rushing attempts. Crockett, who was on the Packers in 2019, has three.
Part 3: Russell Wilson’s running backs
The Seahawks were ranked first, second, or third in rushing attempts during every year 2012-2021 except these four seasons: year - rank in team rushing attempts
- 2016 - 20th
- 2017 - 21st
- 2020 - 17th
- 2021 - 27th
Wilson, when allowed to audible and/or call his own plays, constantly puts his weapons in the right spot. He also, despite prevailing narratives, loves the run game and prefers an offense with a healthy balance. The expected autonomy to audible how he chooses in Denver should be a huge bonus for whatever running back is on the field with him. This flexibility on offense is something that the Broncos have had very little of since the retirement of Peyton Manning.
Last season in week three against the Vikings in the 2nd quarter up 10-7, Russell Wilson noticed that the Vikings were playing a really light (6-man) box after a 21 yard pass to DK Metcalf. Wilson proceeded to audible and or call four straight runs for Chris Carson. The final run resulted in a 30-yard touchdown which is the longest of Carson’s career.
As a rookie in 2012 Russell Wilson started every game for the Seahawks, but with an elite defense and a strong running game, Pete Carroll relied heavily on his ground game. The Seahawks led the league in rushing attempts with Marshawn Lynch (315 carries) getting the bulk. Wilson would have 94 carries for 489 yards and Robert Turbin would carry the ball 80 times. Wilson would throw the ball 76 times to his running backs (including the fullback) that season.
Despite running for almost 500 yards, Russell Wilson would finish third in QB rushing yards in 2012 behind Robert Griffin (841) and Cam Newton (741). Newton and Griffin had eight and seven rushing TDs that year. Wilson’s four was good enough for fifth among QBs behind Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick who both had five.
The 2013 and 2014 Seahawks were almost identical to the 2012 team in terms of carries:
- 2013 - Lynch (301), Wilson (96) and Turbin (77). Lynch got the lion’s share of the RB targets though (44 to Turbin’s 12).
- 2014 - Lynch (280), Wilson (118) and Turbin (74). This was Wilson’s best season as a runner with 849 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry in 2014. All four numbers were career highs for him (carries, yards, rush TDs and YPC).
Years of heavy usage took their toll on Lynch who broke down in 2015. Lynch still finished the year with 111 carries, but Thomas Rawls (147 carries) was the main RB with four other guys combining for 101 carries. Wilson would have 103 carries.
2016 saw Seattle use a 50/50 split of carries equally between Christine Michael (117) and Rawls (109). Alex Collins (31) and C.J. Procise (30) would also see a handful of carries. Wilson’s carries would drop to 72 this year which is where they have generally stayed since. He had 95 carries in 2017 and only 43 last season, but he has averaged in the mid-70s. For his career has has run the ball 5.4 times per game, but 2021 was a career low for him at 3.1.
The 2017 season was the only year of Wilson’s career where he led the team in carries. He has 95 and no other Seahawk had more than 69. Eddie Lacy had 69, Mike Davis had 68, Rawls had 58, Chris Carson had 49 and J.D. McKissic had 46. All five RBs were credited with starting a game for Seattle in 2017.
The RB situation in Seattle was much more stable in 2018 with Carson getting the majority of the carries (247) and Davis getting 112 as RB2A. Rashaad Penny was RB2B with 85 carries. Davis led the RBs with 42 targets and 34 catches.
2019 was similar with Carson getting 278 carries and Penny 65.
2020 saw Carson limited to 141 carries by injury so Hyde got 81 and DeeJay Dallas got 34. Penny was also hurt for most of the year.
2021 saw a 50/50 split between Penny (119 carries) and Alex Collins (108) with Carson getting only 54 because of injury.
Wilson shares a similar philosophy on offense to Hackett - the “touchdown or checkdown” philosophy. The Bronco offense in 2022 and onward is likely to be a two-read passing offense with some read option plays and zone runs. The Hacketts are married to this (Nathaniel’s dad, Paul, was an offensive coordinator in the NFL), but it goes back to Paul’s ties to Bill Walsh. We saw this heavily play out in Green Bay with Davante Adams and the running back combo of Jones/Dillon.
The Hackett offense requires both running backs to be above average as receivers. For this reason, the Broncos might try to bring Melvin Gordon (who is still not signed) back on a veteran minimum deal. Gordon is a much more polished receiver than Pookie. Gordon has 284 career receptions. However, if Gordon is not brought back, look for the running back (or backs) that we draft this year to be from a program that uses them in the passing game.
What production are you expecting from Pookie Williams in 2022?
This poll is closed
much more than 2021
a little more than 2021
about the same as 2021
a little less than 2021
much less than 2021
it all depends on whether or not Gordon is re-signed