In a five-year NFL career, Jonathan Williams has amassed 80 carries for 334 yards and two touchdowns. He also has 81 receiving yards. Williams’ most productive season came in 2019 with the Colts when he was active for 9 games and got his lone career start.
It wasn’t the way Williams or most NFL observers expected his career to go when he was selected in the 5th round of the 2016 draft by the Buffalo Bills.
Jonathan Williams, pre-draft, in 2016
Consider some of these pre-draft profiles.
In terms of physical tools, Williams has the size, strength, footwork, and determination to be a top-tier running back someday, provided he can stay healthy and continue to improve his vision. The big questions surrounding the Razorbacks stud will pertain to his foot, but if Williams get a clean medical report, I expect him to come off the board sometime in the second round.
(Projected 3rd round) “Has enough size, heart and talent to be a three-down running back, but was a proven commodity as a fresh runner in a committee approach at Arkansas. Williams is one of the more creative runners in tight quarters that you will find in this draft, but teams won’t have to sacrifice too much toughness in order to take advantage of his slashing style.
Williams, who turned 22 on February 2, dominated the SEC in 2014, rushing for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 211 carries. At 220 pounds on a chiseled 5’11” frame, Williams is built for the pros. Under that hulking body, Williams has the quick feet to stutter-step and go when meeting a defender. He shows loose knees and the balance to shake in the hole and explode into space. Williams can create on his own—both laterally and by lowering his pads and going forward. If Williams can regain his 2014 form, he could be one of the best running backs in the class.
The picture that emerges is a big, powerful back with great footwork and “creativity” as a runner — a guy who was universally viewed among the best in his 2016 draft class, and a definite NFL talent. By the way, here’s a pre-draft snapshot from DraftWire of the top running backs in that draft class, along with projected draft round, in case you don’t remember who was in it:
- Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State – 1st Round.
- Derrick Henry, Alabama – 2nd Round.
- Paul Perkins, UCLA – 2nd Round.
- Jonathan Williams, Arkansas – 2nd Round.
- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech – 2nd Round.
- Devontae Booker, Utah – 3rd Round.
- Alex Collins, Arkansas – 3rd Round.
- C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame – 4th Round.
While we’re here, let’s add DraftWire’s pre-draft analysis of Williams to what we’ve already read:
[I]f Jonathan Williams hadn’t missed the entire 2015 season with a foot injury, he might be no. 2 on this list. He heads back to Indy for medical re-checks this weekend, and if the news is overwhelmingly positive, Williams should go no later than the second round.
And there it is — the injury!
College career and injury
Jonathan Williams put together impressive back-to-back seasons as a sophomore and junior at Arkansas. Running against SEC defenses, Williams put up over 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in those two seasons.
The injury and the 2016 draft
If he had declared for the draft after his junior year, he might have had a very different NFL career, but on December 24, 2014, Williams gave Arkansas fans an early Christmas present when he announced on YouTube that he would be returning for his senior season at Arkansas. Unfortunately, during summer camp leading into the 2015 season, Williams suffered a left foot fracture that would force him to miss his entire senior season.
Apparently, there were still question marks about his recovery when he got his medical check at the Combine. Williams, considered by many to be the second-best running back in his class behind Ezekiel Elliot, fell to the 5th round before the Buffalo Bills, who didn’t really need a running back, decided he was too good to pass on.
Draft analyst Mark Dulgerian offered his thoughts on the pick at the time:
“The draft slot does not match the talent here, but with his injury history, it makes sense. With exceptional feet, balance, power, and quickness Williams was among the best RBs in the SEC before sitting out 2015 with a foot injury. This could be a long-term steal if he stays healthy.”
It didn’t work out. Williams rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown as a rookie and was waived at the end of training camp ahead of the 2017 season in what was described by some as a surprise cut after a vote of confidence from his head coach.
Surprisingly, Williams cleared waivers, and was signed to the Broncos practice squad immediately after.
New Orleans Saints
In November 2017, the Saints signed Williams to their regular roster as a replacement for Daniel Lasco, who suffered a season-ending injury. In a backfield that featured Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the second-year back was merely insurance, and he never appeared in a regular season game for the Saints in 2017.
He began the ‘18 season on the Saints practice squad, but was elevated for a 3-week stint on the regular roster. He got 3 carries for zero yards and was waived at the end of September.
Williams finished the ‘18 season with the Colts, mostly on the practice squad.
2019 with the Colts was Williams’ highlight year as a pro. He rushed 49 times at 4.8 yards per carry, compiling 235 yards and a touchdown.
In Week 11 of the ‘19 season, Williams rushed 13 times for 116 yards in a win against the Jags. The following week, he ran for 104 yards and a score against the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football. With 220 yards and a touchdown in two games against two division rivals, it appeared that Williams’ NFL career had finally gotten back on track.
But the Colts had 3 running backs that they had drafted, and Williams, who was on his third team in four seasons, was actually 4th on the depth chart. After getting just 14 yards on 8 carries in the Week 13 game against the Titans (a game I remember watching; I may or may not have had Jonathan Williams on my fantasy team that week), Williams was relegated to the bench, getting only 2 offensive snaps in the remainder of the season.
The 2020 season — Detroit and Washington
Last season, Williams was signed as a free agent by Detroit, but was put on the practice squad to start the season. He ended up having two stints each with Detroit and Washington, primarily as a practice squad player, though he was active for five games with the Lions. He caught 4 passes, but fumbled on his only rushing attempt as a Lion. He was never active for a regular season game with the Football Team.
What does 2021 hold for Jonathan Williams?
I’m sure that there is a universe where Jonathan Williams gets out on the field for the Washington Football Team in the 2021 preseason and dominates the competition, convincing Ron Rivera, Scott Turner and Running Backs Coach Randy Jordan that he deserves a roster spot and a featured role on the team.
But it’s hard to believe that this reality that you and I are inhabiting is the one where that happens.
Jonathan Williams’ career got derailed in August of 2015. I can hear Griffin’s voice in my head, saying, “Oh no! This is the one where he breaks his foot.”
Prior to that Jonathan Williams was considered one of the best running backs around. Post-injury, his career has been moribund, absent a brief flash of excitement in a five-day stretch of 2019 with wins against two division rivals as a member of the Colts.
His pro career before and since has been on the fringe; he’s been a practice squad guy who has been able to get a few call ups for a game or five, but he has not been able to establish himself as the NFL running back that everyone expected him to be when he was tearing up the SEC in 2014. Griffin may be able to see a rosy future for Williams in DC, but with my limited ability to see potential outcomes, I fear that 2020 will be more of the same for Jonathan Williams, who, at age 27, is running out of opportunities to change his destiny.