We’ve taken a bit of a break on our NFL Draft analysis, but with March Madness behind us and only 10 (?!) days until day 1 of the draft it’s time to go full speed ahead. The previous Sleeper Series post covered the Running Backs expected to be drafted in the 2nd-3rd round range. On day 3 and beyond, running Back is arguably the main position where elite starters can most often be found. So, which of the 2017 prospects will go from unknown late round flier to superstar stud?
Jamaal Williams – BYU
NFL Comp – Willis McGahee
Jamaal Williams is quite possibly my favorite running back prospect in this entire class. I absolutely love this kid and would consider him as early as round 2. The earliest I’m seeing him mocked is round 4 or later, meaning the former BYU stud is going to be an absolute STEAL.
Williams arrived in Provo, Utah in 2012 and immediately proved to be a highly productive RB as a true freshman with 775 yards and 12 TDs. Jamaal followed that up with a star-studded Sophomore campaign with 1,233 yards and a 5.7 YPC average. Then the road blocks came. First in 2014, midway through his Junior season (where he very possibly could’ve gone pro afterwards) Williams obliterated his knee. After grueling rehab, Williams was poised to come back stronger than ever… and then things really went awry. Due to violating the strict nature of BYU’s “honor code”, Williams was suspended for the entire 2015 season for having sex with another student. Most observers assumed Williams would transfer to try and become eligible somewhere else to hang onto his fading NFL dreams. Jamaal didn’t want to run away from his mistakes even if every single other school in the country would’ve been fine with this “transgression”. Jamaal said he was the one that signed the honor code, so he needed to be the one who lived up to it.
That story resonated with me as I will always go to bat for a man with this type of integrity and perseverance. Not only was Williams accepted back into BYU and onto the football team, he put together the best season of his career in 2016 with 1,375 yards (21st in the country) on a 5.9 YPC average and 12 TDs even though he missed three full games with a sprained ankle!
Beyond the off the field hurdles Williams had to overcome, he’s a god damn fabulous football player on the gridiron as well. His vision is spectacular and no matter how small a hole his line opens up he finds a way to get through. He’s extremely decisive and hits the second level hard to make sure those LBs and DBs know they’re in for a long night. His best attribute is his willingness and ability to shed would be tacklers. While he doesn’t have the most deceptive moves he’s simply incredibly tough to bring down, and rarely goes down at first contact. Usually a concern about RBs fighting for extra yardage is that they have a tendency to cough up the football, but Williams has no issues with ball security losing only 2 fumbles his entire career.
There a few concerns to note with Jamaal, the first being his advanced age due to the year away from football. Second, is that brutal knee injury suffered in 2014, and while he made a full recovery NFL teams are sure to be wary. Third, Williams does not appear to have home run hitting ability with only adequate top end speed although he does show above average short area burst and quickness (2nd fastest three cone time of all RBs that participated in that drill at the combine).
BUY BUY BUY
Jeremy McNichols – Boise St.
NFL Comp – Doug Martin
As the highlight video above describes, Jeremy McNichols is going to be a weapon at the next level. While Boise St. has waned a bit in recent years from its Chris Peterson days of glory, McNichols is on pace to continue the recent success of Broncos’ RBs Jay Ajayi and Doug Martin.
McNichols only stayed on the blue turf in Boise for 3 years, and was only a starter for the 2015 & 16 seasons. McNichols put up some SERIOUS stats in those 2 seasons though:
2015 – Rushing – 240 carries, 1,337 yards, 5.6 YPC, 88 yard long, 20 TDs. Receiving – 51 receptions, 460 yards, 9.0 YPC, 40 yard long, 6 TDs.
2016 – Rushing – 314 carries, 1,709 yards (6th in NCAA), 5.4 YPC, 80 yard long, 23 TDs. Receiving – 37 receptions, 474 yards, 12.8 YPC, 76 yard long, 4 TDs.
Over 2,000 total yards is nothing to sneeze at. Combine that with explosive big play ability as evidenced by the 88 yard rushing and 76 yard receiving long and you have a prospect who is ready to make an impact at the next level. McNichols shows great speed to get to the outside, plus balance to stay on his feet after getting hit by bigger and stronger men, and always keeps his legs churning to pick up the extra yard or two.
The skill that will translate most quickly and easily to the next level though is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. And not just out of the backfield, but also to be able to run routes out of the slot and catch a ball 40 yards downfield is a skill generally not associated with college RBs. If McNichols is able to get on the field early in his NFL career I sense it will have more to do with his receiving than rushing skills.
On the downside, McNichols often tries to bounce every play all the way to the outside rather than take the openings that his offensive line and the defense are giving him. He was able to outrun slower defenders in the Mountain West, but that’s unlikely to continue in the NFL.
Coming from a smaller conference in college, McNichols’ playing time is going to be determined by his ability to pick up the playbook. I think he’ll have to settle for a couple of learning years before given (at least) a part time role. PPR leagues should have their eyes out for this kid though in case he gets a chance sooner than I’m anticipating.
Joe Williams – Utah
NFL Comp – Lamar Miller
Let’s be very clear: if it wasn’t for a myriad of attitude and off-field issues Joe Williams would be a borderline 1st rounder and early day 2 selection at worst. Instead, he’s looking at the 7th round/undrafted borderline.
What made the biggest headlines was Joe’s decision to “retire” from football just 2 games into the 2016 season. Evaluators are now seriously questioning if they can spend even a late round pick on a kid that might quit at the first sign of adversity.
Before 2016, Joe had already spent a semester at a military academy in High School to qualify to play at UCONN, where he subsequently pled guilty to a shoplifting charge and struggled to qualify academically as he never stepped onto the field at Storrs. He went to a Junior College in Brooklyn for a semester before Kyle Whittingham seemingly gave him his last shot at Utah. Williams showed well in relief of Devontae Booker down the stretch in 2015, but after a poor start in 2016 Williams planned on leaving the sport for good.
However, what wasn’t seen by the public eye was a kid that was being prescribed too many painkillers just to get through his daily routine and to suppress the heartbreak that came from never learning how to cope with losing his sister in a tragedy some 10 years before.
After a 4 game hiatus Williams talked to the coaches who happily allowed him back onto the team, seeing a man who had done a lot of “soul searching” in his time away from the sport and was no longer taking prescription painkillers. From the second he stepped back on the gridiron, Williams was a man reincarnated, and in my opinion the most explosive running back in the country bar NONE. His first game back he went for a ho-hum 34 carries for 179 and a TD. The second game back, a 52-45 win over UCLA where the Utes needed every point: 29 carries for 332 yards and 4 TDs. This was coming from a kid who had never carried the mail before, but he was ready for the role in a massive way finishing the season with 1,407 yards and almost all of them coming in the seasons’ final 8 games (he only had 75 combined rushing yards in the 2 games before the retirement).
Williams was probably the fastest running back in college football last year and proved the same at the NFL combine with a blazing 4.41 40 (2nd fastest at the position). If he gets to the open field he isn’t getting caught, and that kind of home-run ability is huge at the next level. He’s also a shifty runner, and while he doesn’t have great jukes, if he can make a defender flat footed for even a second that defender has no chance of tackling him.
His world class speed is also one of his main (on-field) issues as he relies on it way too much. Joe is reluctant to take on contact and doesn’t show much ability to make defenders miss other than to simply run around them. That’s going to be much tougher in the NFL and he needs to learn some go-to moves to complement that speed.
If a team gives him a chance and Williams has his head on straight (2 big ifs), he could become a pro bowl running back. Think rich man’s Lamar Miller and not the other way around.
Others to keep an eye on:
Elijah Hood – UNC
NFL Comp – Isaiah Crowell
Hood had a stud Sophomore year, which is why his sub 1,000 yard junior year follow up campaign was puzzling to fans and scouts alike. He has the superb high school credentials like his comp Crowell, and he did put the one phenomenal year on tape. Worst case scenario he’ll be a short yardage backup and goal line vulture which is pretty good for a late round pick.
Tarik Cohen – North Carolina A&T
NFL Comp – Jacquizz Rodgers
If Tarik Cohen was 2 inches taller we might be talking about a guy who played for a major college football team and a mid round NFL draft pick. Instead he played in the MEAC conference and will be lucky to be a 7th round selection. The kid has heart though, and we’ve seen diminutive runners dominate in the NFL before and we’ll see it again. This kid has the speed and power to possibly be that next guy.
De’Veon Smith – Michigan
NFL Comp – Robert Kelley
The concern about De’Veon is a lack of top end speed, but this kid is really tough to get to the ground. He’ll get at least what he’s supposed to get, but oftentimes will get much more due to his ability to shake off would be tacklers. While he’s a “no frills” type of RB, you add in his great blocking ability and Smith seems like one of the safest RB picks of the draft and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him give us a season similar to what Kelley did for the Redskins last year.