When the Minnesota Gophers signed Maxx Williams as a scholarship athlete out of high school, they likely had no idea he would be the top tight-end prospect in the 2015 NFL draft.
In fact, there might have been doubts he would ever make an impact on the Gophers offense, as he was an All-American punter who just happened to spend time at tight end.
Williams’ high school experience varied so much that his resume reads like a created player in one of the old NCAA Football video games made by EA Sports. He spent time at quarterback, defensive back, running back and tight end—but really starred as a punter.
His versatility and willingness to play wherever are impressive, but they were part of the reason Scout.com had Williams ranked as the 48th-best tight end recruit in the nation.
Three years and two letterman seasons later, Williams is widely viewed as the best tight end in the country. His emergence has been sudden, but he was largely shrouded in a run-first offense led by stud running back David Cobb.
Cobb deservedly received more attention than Williams, as he was the Gophers’ heart and soul the last few seasons.
Todd Heap “@browns2211: What's a good Maxx Williams NFL comp?”— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) February 20, 2015
The son of former New York Giants center Brian Williams, Maxx has football bloodlines that trace back to his two grandfathers back in the 1950s. He was born to play football, and he’s done well to deliver on his immense physical talents.
To see why Williams is a potential first-round pick in the 2015 draft, we have to understand his strengths are weaknesses.
Where he wins is the most critical part of his evaluation, because teams need to know what to expect if Williams is their selection. His weaknesses can be mitigated if his strengths are good enough to translate to the NFL game.
Where He Wins
#Minnesota TE Maxx Williams: 6'5/249 lbs - 33 1/2" arms - 10 3/8" hands.— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) February 18, 2015
The first thing to note is his tremendous size.
His official measurement of 6’5” and 249 pounds at the NFL combine tells us a few things. The first is he is actually as big and imposing as he looks on tape. It’s important he is in fact as large as he looks from afar, because that creates more mismatches for offenses to exploit on a weekly basis.
Size doesn't make Williams effective, but it helps increase his value because there are more ways to use his talents.
The other important measurement is his weight.
Williams is only a third-year sophomore, which is the earliest year prospects are eligible for the draft. Just three years removed from high school, he hasn't had the same time to fill out his physique compared to fifth-year seniors. The three-year difference is major, as a 21-year-old is much less physically mature than a 24-year-old in most cases.
We’ll touch on Williams' weight projection later, but for now let's focus on the positives of his game.
Without a doubt, just minutes of examining his receiving ability show he is a tremendous athlete. He is the type of athlete who changes how an offense designs routes to help get him into space so he can create after the catch.
Williams’ open-field prowess was on full display in his final collegiate game against the Missouri Tigers. His movements are as svelte as they come for an athlete as big as he is, and they help him create large separation against linebackers who dare to match up in single coverage.
Once he has the ball in his hands, he's a terror to bring down. He’s an incredibly gifted runner with great balance and flexibility for someone who is 6’5”. His speed alone differentiates him from many tight ends; he’s dynamic, but his ability to sink his hips and explode upfield is tantalizing.
Minnesota wasn’t always able to exploit Williams’ talent by getting him the ball in space, but its offense did showcase his incredible concentration level and naturally soft hands. Whether by design or not, he had the opportunity to make several amazing catches in his two seasons of play.
His elite body control and advanced feel of where he is on the field help make impossible catches a reality. By pulling in overthrows and inaccurate passes, any quarterback will love Williams’ ability to make bad throws work out.
Finding a player of Williams’ size and speed is difficult to do, but his balance is really what makes him a special receiver.
Comparing his natural talent is hard to do, as he’s a mixture of Vernon Davis (athleticism) and Todd Heap (receiving ability). His feel for what is possible and needs to happen to complete the catch process is purely innate. There just aren’t many ways to explain catches like the one below.
Although he didn’t consistently dominate at Minnesota, there were factors Williams couldn't do much about. He had only 61 career receptions for a total of 986 yards and 13 touchdowns in large part to the offensive philosophy and an up-and-down quarterback situation.
Nevertheless, his athletic traits were always on display.
His speed, burst and versatility as a playmaker were showcased whether he was acting as a lead-blocking H-back or slot receiver. He wasn’t always targeted when open, but we can see examples where Williams will command the attention of defenses in the NFL.
Watch below as he accelerates off the line and eats up the cushion given to him.
Where He Struggles
As mentioned earlier, Williams is light for his frame. Just watching him try to fight through physical defenders, it is clear he needs to bulk up.
He admitted as much in an interview with Tony Drovetto of Seahawks.com:
I feel like my biggest weakness could turn into one of my strengths as I do turn 21, 22. Get those years of experience in the weight room extra just developing my body.
His self-awareness is refreshing—and correct.
An NFL weight program will be able to fill out his frame within two offseasons, if he’s willing to work. Adding 10 to 15 pounds of muscle would help him absorb hits over the middle and address the weakest aspect of his game, which is blocking.
Minnesota often asked Williams to be a lead blocker, moving from the weak side to the strong side of the formation. In this H-back role, Williams was left to take care of the outside linebacker or wide-set defensive end, as the tackle worked upfield or crashed down onto the defender in front of him.
How well he executed that plan was inconsistent, in large part to his strength.
To maximize his effectiveness and diminish his lack of functional strength, Williams worked up to the second level to handle smaller defenders.
On the video above, notice how Williams gets a clean release and works up to the linebackers, then finishes the block. His speed is evident, but he succeeds because he is around the same size as the defensive player.
When Williams is lacking the size advantage, he really struggled to win with technique because he lacked functional strength. As important as hand placement and activity is, it is impossible to overcome such a disadvantage in his core and upper-body strength.
The picture below shows a defender getting Williams off balance and driving him back into the running play.
As his strength increases, his effectiveness should also improve.
He’s a heat-seeking missile as a blocker. Some players lack the mindset of a good blocker, but Williams just needs time in the weight room to see better results. His willingness to run downfield and stick his nose into a defender’s mouthpiece is highly encouraging for his development.
The other major knock on Williams’ game is his raw route running. He wasn’t asked to run many routes; his normal route tree often featured crosses, quick outs and corner routes. Those are basic plays that exploit physical mismatches well, but his refinement on selling the routes is underdeveloped right now.
Cutting in and out of breaks effectively at the NFL level is crucial for success. At some point, the physical advantage Williams has won’t be enough to be a constant playmaker, and he’ll have to master the nuances of the position.
Tipping routes by leaning or opening his shoulders early will only hurt the offense because NFL defenders are good at reading that.
Above is a great example of how Williams rounds his routes and how he should be running them.
The orange line illustrates his path on a corner route out of the slot, and the red line is what a crisp route will follow. In this instance, the defensive back was able to sit on the route and stay in front of the play because the defense was never threatened by Williams’ ability to sell the route.
As important as his ability to run routes is to getting himself open, a good route will also help his teammates. If he can pull a zone defender toward where he is heading, the route underneath can open up, giving his quarterback an easy read.
Below is an illustration of what that would look like if the defense had to react more to Williams’ route.
There’s a lot going on here. Williams, in the slot, runs a soft corner route that doesn’t threaten the slot cornerback who is already lined up five yards away.
His defender drops back to the first-down marker and sits on the route. On the outside is a curl route. Ideally, Williams would run deeper, then make a sharp cut out to the sideline to take the slot and boundary cornerbacks with him, leaving the comeback route open for yards-after-catch potential.
Instead, Williams runs a vanilla route. The outside receiver is open but is four yards shy of the first down and has no room to run because the two cornerbacks are waiting for the pass to go there. The quarterback is forced to check down to the fullback in the flat, and the linebacker smothers him.
It's just one example of how a play wasn't executed properly and the offense stalled.
This is an area Williams must learn to master for him to become an elite NFL tight end. But, it’s not something that is a huge concern, because every player has little things that can be improved.
Comparing Williams to the top tight ends of 2014, Eric Ebron, helps put things in perspective about his talent.
Ebron was in a deeper overall class, struggled with drops and wasn't an elite athlete at the position—but he still went 10th overall. He might become a great player one day, but he’s not the prospect that Williams is.
Maxx Williams is a visibly explosive playmaker who is lacking experience but has reliable hands. His pedestrian statistics were not due to drops, rather the result of the offense around him being unable to feed him the ball. His youth is also a major factor for his weaknesses.
There should be little concern about how Williams will translate to the NFL.
Even while he is adding weight during his first few seasons, he will be able to impact games as a rookie on a weekly basis. He’s big and fast enough to be a major receiving threat, and his blocking skills will only get better.
His talent is reminiscent of Vernon Davis and Todd Heap. His ability to develop into one of the better tight ends in the NFL gives him definite first-round value, and he’ll be a contributor in his first professional season.
That’s rare for rookie tight ends, but Williams is one of the few prospects at the position in the last decade capable of delivering that level of impact.
Ian Wharton is a NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for eDraft.