It’s been a great couple of weeks for rookie running backs out of UNC.
One week after New York Jets running back and former Tar Heel Michael Carter broke out with an incredible performance against the Bengals, the Denver Broncos saw their own rookie from UNC, Javonte Williams, storm out of the backfield in Dallas.
Entering Week 9, Williams had been quietly having a solid season. He hadn’t been getting a heavy workload since he still shared the backfield with veteran back Melvin Gordon, but when he got the ball, he was productive. In his first eight games, he put up 355 yards on 78 rushes—that’s 4.55 yards per carry—along with 22 catches for 135 yards. That’s around the same level of production that we’ve seen from Gordon this season, who’s also been quite productive in his seventh year: 88 carries for 397 yards (4.51 yards per carry) over that same period.
With last weekend’s matchup with the Cowboys came Williams’ real breakout game. The rookie still split carries with Gordon—and the veteran still had a majority of the carries on Sunday—but it was Williams who more consistently tore through Dallas’ defense. The Broncos’ former second-round pick had more than 15 carries for the first time in his career, also passing the century mark for the first time with 111 yards on 17 carries. That’s more than 6.5 yards per carry, an elite level of production, especially with almost 20 rushes in the game. It brought his season totals to 466 yards on 95 carries, a jump to just under five yards per carry this season. That’s currently the eighth-highest average yardage of all NFL running backs in 2021.
That level of production was impressive from Denver’s rookie back, but what really stood out about Williams and his skill set from that game was his ability to take on and break through tackles. It wasn’t a new revelation for those who’ve been paying attention. He’d been a monster with broken tackles all season—as his league-leading 37% broken tackle rate would suggest—but some of his plays in this game really underscored the point.
It’s impressive that Williams is tied with Nick Chubb for the league lead in forced missed tackles (35) on fewer carries than the latter. It also suggests something else: the rookie running back sometimes takes on more contact than he needs to.
As a linebacker until the end of his high school career, Williams doesn’t have the elite footwork of a typical NFL running back. But if he’s able to continue breaking off huge runs through broken tackles, that’s okay for now. His footwork should come with practice and more experience, and if it does, he’ll be an even harder man to defend down the road.
Williams is in a perfect position with his recent breakout in Dallas. The man he’s been splitting carries with all season is in his contract year. With such a high level of production from their rookie—and on fewer carries than his backfield partner—the Broncos aren’t likely to keep Gordon around past this year. And now that we’re at the season’s halfway point, we may start seeing Denver begin to ramp up Williams’ carries in each game.
The Broncos will want to get some sense of how their rookie rusher would perform as the leading back before they let the veteran walk in free agency. Williams has a chance to prove himself as a formidable anchor to the Broncos’ backfield, especially if he keeps performing the way he did in Dallas.
Williams’ performance this year and beyond could have some strong, league-changing implications. If he’s the guy the Broncos hope he is, Denver’s strong run game—just as with Pittsburgh’s investment in Najee Harris—would make the Broncos an appealing landing spot for a veteran quarterback (*cough* Aaron Rodgers *cough*) looking to leave their current team. If the Broncos could pull that off a second time (see: Peyton Manning), Denver would once again become a strong playoff contender out of a stacked AFC West.