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Ricky Williams
NFL

Ricky Williams Weighs In On Evolution of RBs In Today’s NFL

  • Kyle Crabbs
  • February 19, 2022
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Franchise running backs are a dying breed; assuming that they aren’t fully gone for good. The recent trends of offensive spacing and limitations to defensive contact on the perimeter have spurred on an evolution of the “ideal” NFL offense as compared to just a decade or two ago—and the idea of a “franchise running back” seems laughable in today’s environment. As a matter of fact, the public perception of the running back position is often the complete opposite; the saying “running backs don’t matter” didn’t come from nowhere. The spirit of the phrase alludes to the presumed ease in which production at the position can be replaced—even though we should all be able to find appreciation for production on the ground.  No, running backs don’t matter like they used to. But they’re still very much a critical layer to plenty of successful offenses.  No one knows the pressures of being a “franchise running back” quite like former New Orleans Saint, Miami Dolphin, and Baltimore Raven Ricky Williams. Williams, who was made the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, saw the New Orleans Saints quite literally risk it all in an effort to move up and select him. Coach Mike Ditka sent every pick from the team’s 1999 scheduled menu of picks (plus two of their top three from 2000) for the right to move up 7 spots and draft Williams. In all, Dikta sent: 
  • 1999 first-round pick (12th overall)
  • 1999 third-round pick (71st overall)
  • 1999 fourth-round pick (107th overall)
  • 1999 fifth-round pick (144th overall)
  • 1999 sixth-round pick (179th overall)
  • 1999 seventh-round pick (218th overall)
  • 2000 first-round pick (2nd overall)
  • 2000 third-round pick (64th overall)
Three years, 4,221 yards from scrimmage, 18 touchdowns, and 946 touches later, Williams was traded to the Dolphins in yet another deal that involved multiple first-round draft choices. Miami received Williams and a fourth-round pick in exchange for first (25th overall) & fourth (125th overall) round picks in 2002 and a conditional pick in 2003 that would become the No. 18 overall selection. Such a thing would be hearsay in today’s NFL. Four first-round picks invested in a running back in three years? Not in today’s climate.  But Williams’ experiences as an offensive centerpiece in the NFL, along with his own unique perspective on all things, give him a rare authority to discuss the position in-depth and fully appreciate the challenges that backs (and teams) now face in trying to value investments in the position while simultaneously balancing a more calculated approach to their usage. Because that is, after all, the true root of the valuation of running backs debate we hear so much of today.  “When I came into the league, especially the way I was drafted, everything was put on my shoulders. And that was kind of the thing: I’m the offense,” said Williams during a sit down with Joe Marino and me in Los Angeles ahead of last weekend’s Super Bowl. “No one here can name another player on the 1999 New Orleans Saints. No one can.” (We did, after some struggles, manage to call out Kyle Turley, much to Ricky’s delight.) “We got a lineman! But this is what I’m saying! I was the whole offense.”  And indeed he was. Williams’ 1,818 touches across his first five seasons in the NFL averaged out just short of 364 touches per season. Across five seasons! And that wasn’t just exclusive to Williams, either. Across those five seasons, Williams managed to lead the NFL in touches from scrimmage just once. Eddie George and LaDanian Tomlinson both logged a season with more than 450 touches across that span. Life was different for NFL running backs.  And when that is the historical measuring stick in which running backs are measured for value, it is understandable how they are perceived to be “lesser” in value in today’s NFL. But sometimes less can be more, including in the case of Williams. Because yes, Williams did manage to log monster numbers across those first five seasons between New Orleans and Miami, but in Williams' own experience, the time in which he felt best in his career came once the league had started its shift to running back dual-threats and he was surrounded with complementary players both in the passing game and in his running back room.  “Fast forward to 2009 (Williams rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns as a 32-year-old running back that year), I was splitting time with Ronnie (Brown), Chris Chambers, Pro Bowl receiver, quarterback Chad Pennington, Pro Bowl quarterback. So we had more weapons and I was a piece. I got to do my thing and in the scheme and the larger system wasn’t just all about me. Part of that was me being okay with not being *the guy*, the only guy, and focusing more on ‘what is my role and how can I do the best that I can filling this role?’,” explained Williams.  “It’s about efficiency. You know? And later in my career as things started to shift that way I had less carries and I felt better. And I was, in a lot of ways, more effective. You know, the old model was three yards and a cloud of dust—that’s not good for longevity for anyone’s career, except for maybe a quarterback. “I like (the evolution of today’s game) because it’s less touches but also they’re smarter. The game plan for me was ‘we knew we were running the ball. THEY knew we were running the ball. And they put eight guys in the box…we still ran the ball! And so now that offenses are being more intelligent. I think everyone wins.” Except for, of course, the valuation of running backs looking to enter into the league or those looking for a monster payday in free agency. You still find teams handing out market-reset contracts to running backs, but they’re usually second contracts to players who are already established within their respective systems. And in Williams’ eyes, that is—above all else—the trump card for finding success—not just at running back, but at any position.  “I don’t think talent is the most important thing in drafting a player. I think it’s fit. It’s fit. Because if you get a really talented player that doesn’t fit in a system, he’s going to struggle. But if you get a pretty good player who fits in a system, he’s gonna excel.”  Knowing the fit of a running back within a scheme is certainly a way to find peace of mind when paying out running backs. And it seems as though that knowledge of fit is a way that NFL teams are willing to buy into paying up at the position. But even among the running backs who have gotten sizable second contracts in the past calendar year, the majority of those players still have a running mate in the backfield—offering credence to both variables Williams credited with being beneficial to his career evolution after a slew of mental health struggles and injuries amid the monstrous workload he carried some 20 years ago.  Consider Williams’ first home, New Orleans and Alvin Kamara. Latavius Murray logged nearly 150 carries in each of 2019 and 2020. And the year before Murray arrived, Kamara shared the backfield with Mark Ingram, who logged 138 carries in 2018. Green Bay and Aaron Jones? Jones took over primary ball-carrier duties in 2018 but nearly logged a 50/50 carry share with Jamaal Williams that season. Williams logged 107 and 119 carries in the next two seasons before leaving for Detroit in free agency. But even then, Green Bay was ready—they drafted RB A.J. Dillon in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft to take his place and then proceeded to pay Jones a four-year, $48M extension. Dalvin Cook has Alexander Mattison behind him and a $12.6M AYP second contract in his pocket. Ezekiel Elliott may be on his last legs as the featured runner in Dallas (he’s got a league-high $15M APY contract among running backs for his troubles) but he’s still got Tony Pollard to share carries with and to help him try to avoid the pitfall that burdened Williams throughout much of his career: being *the guy* unilaterally in the backfield.  Williams appears to be onto something—it’s almost as if he’s got a little bit of valuable perspective on the matter. And with that in mind, we couldn’t help but ask Williams, in the spirit of TDN, to share with us what he believes offers the best DNA for a successful running back, another thing that Williams knows a thing or two about.  “It would depend on the system that our coordinator ran but beyond that, I’m looking for toughness, first and foremost. Because the thing about a running back is you’re going to get hit and you’re going to get hit hard. Do you have the ability to get hit, shake it off and do it again? So toughness.  “Number 2 is ball security. Because you’ve got to hold onto the ball. Number 3 is intelligence. Can they understand coverages? Can they understand blitz protection? As a running back, as far as protecting the quarterback, you’re the last line of defense. And there are so many plays I made because I understood the blocking scheme and I could realize someone made a mistake. And I could make an adjustment to save the quarterback,” said Williams. “So intelligence, toughness, ball security, and then comes the intangibles like ‘can they catch the ball out of the backfield.’ I’ve realized certain things you can coach. Certain things you can develop. Certain things take too long or I’m not sure that you can.”  That’s where Williams’ key pillars of evolution at the position come into play. Fortunately for teams across the league, you don’t have to pay a premium price to find proper fits anymore. And while running backs ready to make the transition into the NFL may wish the market were hotter for their services initially, the ones who go on to find success will likely thank Williams and the others who came before them from paying a premium price of their own to help spur the league’s running back evolution forward toward more longevity—and more tenured contracts.

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Kyle Crabbs