Injuries are the biggest wild card across the NFL. In the blink of an eye, a team's outlook can drastically change. The risk a football player takes whenever he takes the field is massive.
Seeing a major NFL draft prospect suffer a potentially career-altering injury in college is especially heartbreaking. Some players never fully recover, but thankfully over the last decade, the time it takes to return from significant injuries has been cut down as medical procedures evolve. Former Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams is looking to benefit from newer technology that has allowed stars to get back on the field in a matter of months instead of a year.
Williams suffered his torn ACL on January 10 during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game but has already received feedback that he's ahead of schedule in his recovery process. His breakout 2021 season was the best-case scenario after he transferred to Alabama from Ohio State. He caught 79 passes for 1,572 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The method by which Williams amassed such impressive numbers is what makes him the top receiver in the 2022 NFL draft class. It's easy to look at his 19.9 yards per reception and eight touchdowns from the slot and be bullish on his outlook. But Williams has the combination of speed, route-running and ball-tracking ability to go with his production.
Becoming the next elite star in the NFL takes an immensely unique skill set. The Ohio State tandem of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are strong prospects in their own right, but each has holes in his game that make their prospects of NFL success more situationally dependent.
While Williams was no higher than third on Ohio State's depth chart prior to his transfer, that was more a byproduct of his fit with Justin Fields than Williams not being as gifted as his counterparts. Nitpicking Olave's lack of yards after the catch and Wilson's unrefined route-running is fair. Neither will likely be a bust because of those concerns, but Williams' main weakness is not football-related—it's his ACL injury.
Williams' big-play ability became the identity of the Crimson Tide offense in 2021. They relied on his presence for good reason. He routinely split zone coverages built to nullify such deep plays, because it's hard for defenders to account for his game-breaking speed until you see it.
The 6'2" 179-pounder has a Tyreek Hill-like ability to maneuver despite being four inches taller. Both have effortless speed and agility alike, and they're in rare company as unstoppable forces even though defensive schemes exist to prevent them from overtaking the game. Hill has relied more on his uncanny ability to create after the catch, whereas Williams is entering the NFL as a more refined route-runner at this stage of his career.
Williams has more of a grounded game than Wilson, similar to Olave, where he doesn't necessarily go up and over corners to finish plays. His speed through cuts and turns never wavers, though, making corners trip over themselves as they try to replicate his footwork. The vast majority of defenders lack the flexibility in their hips and ankles to continue sprinting through sharp cuts and avoid a dip in speed.
He impressively averaged 15.5 yards after the catch per reception and 11.37 yards per deep route run, per Pro Football Focus.
Even as the NFL has transitioned to more of a short-passing game than the vertical, low-efficiency model of the 1990s, the priority of getting your playmakers the ball in space has never been greater. The desire has always been there to manufacture touches for ridiculously fast athletes, which is why Tavon Austin and Ted Ginn Jr. were top-10 picks in the 2013 and 2007 drafts, respectively. Austin and Ginn were comparable big-play threats to Williams in terms of production and reputation but lacked the mixture of smoothness, technical prowess and reliable hands that Williams has.
Most offenses have failed to cater to their stars like we've seen from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree.
Williams brings the obvious element of deep speed and ability to win one-on-one on every play, but his versatility to play from the slot or create after the catch is what makes him more attractive than his peers in the 2022 class. Wilson is a great prospect, but pairing him with a quarterback who won't attempt contested throws will hurt him. Olave is similarly strong, but he's more of a deep-play threat, requiring an accurate passer who will trust him to separate after the ball is released.
Williams may not make the most of Matthew Stafford's ability to throw into traffic, but his lack of vertical physicality isn't a glaring red flag, either. He just didn't need to "Moss" defenders because he was open with green space to spare so often. Young quarterbacks like Zach Wilson and veterans like Justin Herbert would love and thrive with this skill set.
It was common to see Williams' name drop in mock drafts after his injury. As we get closer to the draft, though, it's clear evaluators aren't worrying as much about his ACL recovery. His name continues to rise in mock drafts closer to the top 10 because his talent is too tantalizing not to gamble on.
At worst, Williams misses time at the start of the season and doesn't show the same explosiveness until 2023. Getting a full 17 games from a rookie is preferred but not worth taking a lesser prospect over in some instances. Playoff-caliber teams will want Williams to be 100 percent healthy so that they can make their push at full strength.
Any doubt about Williams' health can justifiably bump one of the other receivers in the class ahead of him. Some front offices' careers are on the line in 2022. Williams may be too much of a gamble to bank on even if ACL injuries aren't as devastating as they once were.
At best, Williams quickly regains his form and plays the majority, if not the entirety, of the 2022 season. He could be the difference in multiple games and swing a playoff push or create more optimism among a staff that's on the hot seat.
Some players don't have incredible upside worth investing in after a significant injury. Jameson Williams does, however, and profiles as a true No. 1 receiver in a league filled with star difference-makers. Look for him to be treated as a premier prospect in the first round despite his injury.