At 34, Williams' age may finally be catching up to him, as he missed seven games last season due to a knee injury. The Steelers have a spot for the veteran on the depth chart but are waiting to see if he wants to continue his run or hang up the cleats. He hasn't garnered much interest from other teams, so at this point it appears to be Steelers or bust for the free agent. His delayed decision may just be the veteran looking to opt out of voluntary workouts and training camp, but it's entirely too early to tell. The Steelers did add Knile Davis and rookie James Conner to the backfield, meaning Williams' reps, if he returns, could be far and few between.
Thirty-something running backs aren't supposed to be major factors in today's NFL, but Williams never read that memo. He started the year with two solid games while the Steelers waited for Le'Veon Bell to return, and he really got going in the second half after Bell suffered a season-ending MCL injury. Williams was the No. 1 PPR back over the final two months (the No. 2 runner in standard scoring), riding shotgun with the loaded Steelers offense. Inside, outside, running, catching, Williams did it all. Its a foolish move to compare any back to Bell at his best, but Williams wasn't a major drop-off. To be fair, Williams eventually broke down, too — a foot injury kept him out of the playoffs. With Bell now potentially facing a four-game suspension to start the 2016 campaign, a healthy Williams could head the Steelers' backfield early on this season.
After missing just one game the previous three seasons with the Panthers, Williams played only six games last year because of injuries, posting career-low numbers. The 32-year-old signed on this offseason to back up Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and is expected to start the first two games with Bell suspended. The Steelers' offensive line is an upgrade over what Williams had in Carolina, but the speed and burst Williams once flashed seem long gone. Williams also has never been much of an asset in the passing game, which likely means Dri Archer will handle the third-down work while Bell is out. Once Bell returns, Williams' touches will dry up, but if he stays healthy, he's in a good enough situation to have a modest rebound, assuming he has anything left in the tank.
Even with Jonathan Stewart missing much of last season, affording Williams his first 200-rush season in four years, Williams again danced around the fringes of fantasy relevance, though he did accumulate his highest total yardage (1,176) since 2009. Unfortunately, he remains a relatively modest producer through the air despite averaging more than 12 yards per reception for the second straight season, and he sees minimal touchdown opportunities with the Panthers, who like to use Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert near the goal line.
Though he's 31 this year, the speedy 5-9, 215-pound Williams is a fairly low-mileage back, having accumulated just 1,370 carries in his eight NFL seasons thanks to the workload-reducing presences of Stewart and Newton. Of course, that's a mixed blessing, as Williams will almost surely again cede about 200 carries to the combination of Newton, Stewart and Tolbert, making him a weak starter in standard fantasy formats.
After restructuring his contract to stay in Carolina, Williams remains stuck in a committee in which he's fourth in the goal-line pecking order behind Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton and fullback Mike Tolbert. Moreover, Williams has not seen 200 touches since 2009. Thanks to the light workload, though, the 30-year-old Williams still has juice in his legs, which he showed late last season when Stewart missed the final month – Williams had 21 carries for 210 yards and two scores in the season finale against the Saints, and more than 100 total yards in two of the other final four games. With Stewart on the PUP list to start the season, Williams should be busy out of the gate, which boosts his fantasy utility early on.
Despite signing a lucrative contract to return to Carolina last year, Williams remained locked in a timeshare, resulting in a modest 171 touches. After an extremely slow start to the season, when he ran for a total of 61 yards on 2.3 YPC over the first three games, he really picked up his per-play production, finishing with a strong 5.4 YPC mark on the year. On talent level alone, Williams is likely a top-10 back in the league, but so is his teammate Jonathan Stewart, who also deserves his share of work. Williams will be hard-pressed to match last year’s seven touchdowns, as he was given just two goal-line carries, while Stewart and quarterback Cam Newton combined for 24. As if competing for carries with Stewart weren’t bad enough, Williams now has to deal with playing alongside possibly the best goal-line quarterback in NFL history. Mike Tolbert was also brought in through free agency, though he’s expected to play mostly fullback. If injuries strike, there’s plenty of upside, but as things stand, Williams’ situation kills most of his value.
Williams’ season ended after just six games last year, thanks to a sprained foot. His numbers were down before the injury, though, in large part due to Carolina’s collapse as a team. Williams has a career 5.0 YPC mark and is one of the five best running backs in the NFL when it comes to talent, with excellent size, speed, tackle-breaking ability and vision. The Panthers clearly see the positive side of Williams and rewarded him with a five-year, $43 million contract, with $21 million guaranteed. Despite the massive contract, he’ll likely split work with Jonathan Stewart, and maybe Mike Goodson, on a bad team. Williams is 28 with only 841 career rushing attempts, so he’s still firmly in his prime and should be able to bounce back from the foot sprain.
Williams failed to match his huge 2008
season last year, though he surpassed 1,100
rushing yards with just 216 carries thanks to
yet another impressive YPC mark (5.2).
Encouragingly, he also more than doubled his
previous year’s total in receiving yards, getting
252 despite essentially missing four games.
Health was a concern with Williams in 2009, as
a sprained ankle in Week 12 hampered him the
rest of the year. In fact, that injury really broke
his season into two parts, as Williams totaled
1,206 yards with seven touchdowns over his
first 10 games compared to just 163 yards and
no scores thereafter. He’s been underutilized as a receiver
since his rookie season, but he’s averaged 5.3
YPC the last three years.
The only thing holding Williams back as a serious
2,000-yard rushing threat is being in a
committee with Jonathan Stewart, which doesn’t
look likely to change anytime soon. Williams
and Stewart became the first duo in league
history to run for more than 1,100 yards each
in the same backfield in 2009. A likely improved
offense with Matt Moore taking over quarterback
duties can only help, as should a schedule
that looks much easier than last season’s. While
Stewart is the favorite to get more goal-line
carries, Williams is the superior receiver and is
still the starter. Williams underwent foot/ankle
surgery during the offseason, but it was considered
minor, so he’s expected to
enter 2010 fully healthy.
Williams had an MVP-type season in 2008, rushing for 1,515 yards with an NFL-high 20 touchdowns. He wasn’t a big contributor in the passing game, catching only 22 balls for 121 receiving yards, but his 5.5 YPC mark was easily the highest in the NFL for backs who had at least 200 rushing attempts. In fact, over the season’s final nine games, Williams averaged an incredible 6.5 YPC with a whopping 16 touchdowns. His 15 carries for 20-plus yards were the second most in the league, while his five rushes for 40-plus yards tied for most in the NFL. He had six touchdown runs of 30 yards or more, just one short of the NFL-record set by Jim Brown 50 years ago.
And while Williams was breaking more long runs than anyone in football, he also converted eight of his 12 goal-line carries for touchdowns, a terrific 67 percent conversion rate.
The presence of last year’s first-round draft pick, Jonathan Stewart, dampens Williams’ 2009 outlook, however. Last year Carolina became the first team in NFL history to have two running backs with at least 10 touchdowns and 800 yards, so that type of production is unsustainable. Stewart is an extremely talented back in his own right and deserves plenty of touches, so while Williams is the RB1, expect something of a timeshare this season. Stewart averaged 5.6 YPC over the final seven games last year, and most important, he could easily become the main option at the goal line, where he scored seven times on just nine carries in 2008 – something which could hurt Williams’ value, especially because Williams doesn’t offer much in the passing game.
Only four players had more attempts and a better
YPC mark than Williams' 5.0 last season. Still,
in part because Williams struggles with blocking,
DeShaun Foster was given 103 more carries despite
getting just 3.5 YPC. Pass protection isn't
the only area of weakness in Williams' game, as
he's also poor in short-yardage situations. He's
explosive, and good things often happen with
the football in his hands, but because he's not a
complete back, Williams' upside is limited. The
Panthers' offense should be greatly improved in
2008, but since the team drafted Jonathan Stewart
with the 13th pick, Williams' role shouldn't be
much different than in years past.
Williams didn’t get a ton of opportunities last season with coach Jon Fox showing DeShaun Foster more faith than his performance warranted. Nonetheless, when he got the chance, Williams showcased his abilities as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, racking up 74 yards rushing and 101 yards receiving on seven catches in a Monday night game against the Eagles.
Heading into 2007, Williams is poised to take on a larger role in the offense. Fox is a run-first coach at heart, and the newly implemented zone-blocking scheme should fit Williams’ style perfectly, allowing him to get to the outside where he can use his good speed and excellent burst. Foster will still be in the mix, but given his track record of mediocrity and also his long history of injuries, Williams figures to be the feature back by the second half of 2007, if not sooner.
Of all the running backs selected in the early rounds of this year’s draft, Williams might have landed in the best situation. The Panthers’ numerous injury problems at the position leave the door wide open for Williams to come in and make an instant impact, despite the presence of DeShaun Foster on the depth chart – or maybe because of it, given Foster’s inability to stay healthy. Williams has good speed, but it’s his burst and elusiveness that make him special. If he gets a full workload with a playoff-caliber Carolina offense, he could be the steal of both your draft and the NFL’s.