Leading the nation with 2,073 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns through 11 games, Boston College senior running back Andre Williams has emerged as a top contender for the Heisman Trophy.
While collegiate stardom does not always lead to professional success, NFL scouts should certainly be taking notice of Williams’ breakout senior season. Williams has already surpassed his rushing total from his first three seasons at BC (1,562 yards in 31 games), and he has rushed for a whopping 897 yards and six touchdowns in his last three games alone.
To an extent, that production speaks for itself. Throughout his senior season, Williams has shown that he can be a workhorse back and consistently gain yards on a heavy workload. For an NFL team looking for a physical, between-the-tackles runner who can reliably handle a heavy load of carries throughout a game and season, Williams could be the right fit.
Duplicating that production at the next level, however, will be a tougher task. Williams has the size (6’0", 227 lbs.) and the strength to hold up against bigger, stronger NFL defenders. Whether he has the speed and open-field running ability to break long runs against NFL defenses, however, is more questionable.
How Williams Could Fit In an NFL Offense
NFL teams should know what they are getting in Williams. Whether it be on first or second downs or in short-yardage or goal-line situations, Williams is a strong back who consistently fights for, and often gets, extra yards.
He is a true downhill, north-south runner, a description that carries with it both positive and negative connotations.
To tackle Williams, a defender needs proper technique and positioning. He frequently runs through arm tackles and low tackles, as he takes on contact authoritatively and has both the upper- and lower-body strength to run through contact without losing speed.
The above example from Boston College’s game earlier this year versus Clemson (video courtesy of ACC Digital Network) shows Williams running strongly through contact. First, he does a great job of lowering his shoulder to run straight through Clemson safety Robert Smith’s low tackle attempt approximately five yards upfield.
Then, he finished the run by brushing through an arm tackle and past a pack of three defenders before being brought down after a 17-yard gain.
Williams isn’t exactly Earl Campbell as a power back, so you shouldn’t expect him to bowl over NFL defenders like that very often, but one of his best traits is that he consistently finishes forward through tackles.
Once he gets going in the open field, he almost always drives through tackles as he goes to the ground, falling forward to gain an additional 1-3 yards through contact rather than being driven back. That is an important trait for a between-the-tackles runner to have, especially in situations where converting first downs are crucial and driving forward can be the difference between a conversion or a failure.
While it is great that Williams seeks out contact and is strong through it, he has to be because he rarely makes defenders miss in the open field.
While he does a solid job of making cuts into holes at the line of scrimmage, his open-field moves are limited. He can sometimes power through defenders as demonstrated above, or buy time with a stiff-arm, but he is not going to juke out NFL defenders laterally.
Though his lack of lateral agility is a limiting factor, it does not necessarily show up in his game frequently because he plays to his strengths. Bigger concerns as far as his projected success at the next level are his speed and his ability to contribute to the passing offense.
Williams has reportedly been clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, according to Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated, but it will be a surprise if he actually runs that speed at the NFL Scouting Combine, as it does not show up on tape. He does not consistently show that he can run away from defenders and beat defenses with his speed.
Nonetheless, he displays decent acceleration in the open field, and most importantly, because of his style of play, he has shown that he can maintain his speed and acceleration through contact. There are many successful between-the-tackles runners in the NFL whose 40-yard dash times are closer to 4.6 or 4.7 than they are to 4.4, and if that is the case for Williams, it shouldn’t necessarily hurt his draft stock.
Williams’ limited ability to contribute on passing downs, on the other hand, is likely to hurt his draft stock.
While Williams leads the nation with 320 carries, a sign of how frequently he is on the field for BC, he has not caught a single pass in 11 games. He is often taken off the field in obvious passing situations in favor of freshman Myles Willis, who has carried the ball just 38 times this season.
He is an adequate pass protector, but he is not likely to be good enough in that capacity for an NFL team to warrant keeping him on the field over a back who can add more than Williams as a receiver. In Williams’ case, his limited open-field running ability makes him an ineffective receiving option, and it will likely keep him off the field in many passing situations at the next level.
The ideal situation for Williams in the NFL would be one where he has an immediate opportunity to compete for first- and second-down carries, but where he is paired with a complementary back who is smaller, quicker and a more skilled receiver.
Projecting How Williams Stacks Up Among NFL Backs, Draft Prospects
NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks recently compared Williams to Washington running back Alfred Morris, a second-year downhill runner who has had a fantastic start to his NFL career, rushing for 2,583 yards in his first 27 games.
Morris has more elusiveness than Williams, while Williams is slightly bigger than Morris (5’10”, 218 lbs.). But Brooks’ point is that Williams could be a similar type of back to Morris as a downhill, physical runner who does his best work between the tackles.
If Williams can have similar production to Morris to start his NFL career, the team that drafts him will be ecstatic. There are still improvements he must make to his game, however, to have the same consistency of success Morris has started his career with.
Williams' vision as a runner has room to improve, as he tends to run into his own blockers more of than he should. He also sometimes misses running lanes by seeing holes a split-second too late.
Another area of Williams’ game that could see some scrutiny is ball security. While fumbling has not been a major issue for him this year, especially considering his volume of carries, a three-fumble game against North Carolina State—even in a performance where he ran for 339 yards—was concerning.
One of those fumbles was a turnover, which are never considered to be acceptable. Another came at the end of a 65-yard run, with Williams literally being a step away from a touchdown before the ball was knocked free out of his hand by a faster defensive back, N.C. State’s Juston Burris, who caught up to him.
As you can see in the above video from Draft Breakdown, Williams caught a break on this play when his teammate, wide receiver Alex Amidon, recovered the ball in the end zone. Nonetheless, any continued fumbling issues in his final two games of the season could adversely affect his draft stock.
Another underappreciated but important skill of Morris, who was looked at as a potential fullback coming out of Florida Atlantic in 2012, is his ability to serve as a run-blocker for Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
This aspect of Morris’ game, which increases his value to the Washington scheme, is a developing area of Williams’ game as well. The latter has flashed the ability to be a solid run-blocker for his quarterback, such as when he sprung Eagles quarterback Chase Rettig for a 19-yard run on a 3rd-and-11 versus Virginia Tech.
Williams’ ability to run block, even if limited, increases his value to offenses who frequently use multiple running threats out of the backfield or on reverses.
Overall, if not as good as Alfred Morris, he has the skill set to at least be as good as a solid early-down rotational back, such as Stevan Ridley of the New England Patriots or BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Williams is likely to only be as good as the offensive line in front of him. Like Ridley and Green-Ellis, he has limited speed and quickness and is not going to break many big plays, but he can run through contact, extend runs between the tackles and fall forward consistently.
Ridley was a third-round pick, Morris was a sixth-round pick and Green-Ellis was an undrafted free agent. Though Morris has certainly exceeded expectations, Williams projects to go somewhere between the range of Ridley and Morris, though he would most appropriately be valued as an early Day 3 pick.
He has the potential to be a early-down back who leads a rotation, and a very productive one at that, but he remains a limited player at a position declining in value. He could turn out to be a great value pick in the middle rounds and a perfect addition to a rotation that needs to add physicality and reliability at the position, but his limited burst, open-field quickness and receiving ability should knock him out of the early rounds.
Nonetheless, Williams projects as the No. 2 running back of the senior draft class, only behind another big, physical but more explosive runner in Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde. That class could be augmented by a number of talented underclassmen, however, including Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey.
All screenshots were taken by the author with illustrations added first-hand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.