They can be a game-changer, expectations.
Last season, Williams was a fan, social media and 10 o’clock highlight show favorite. The NFL had not seen him before and its first glimpse was of a rock-‘em, sock ‘em, carry ‘em 20 yards-if-he-had-to running back. An old school running back, diminutive as he was, who didn’t juke tacklers. He hoisted them on his back and brought them along for the rumble.
Little was expected of Williams and much he delivered in return.
Gordon, meanwhile, was carrying around the albatross of an $8 million a year contract and yesterday’s news. A commonly asked question during the Broncos’ promising, then disappointing, then up and down, and finally dissatisfying 2021 season was, Why won’t they give Javonte the ball more?
Yet, here’s how the two running backs ended up last season from an identical number of carries:
Gordon: 203 attempts, 918 yards, 8 touchdowns
Williams: 203 attempts, 903 yards, 4 touchdowns
For all the lauds Williams received, Gordon was slightly more productive. Yes, Gordon lost three fumbles, three more than Williams. And yes, Williams had better receiver totals:
Williams: 43 catches, 316 yards, 3 touchdowns
Gordon: 28 catches, 213 yards, 2 touchdowns
But Gordon at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds was also the more trusted pass protector. Williams, at 5-10, 220 pounds, is no slouch at pass pro and was better than most rookies. But rookies still don’t read the disguised blitz as well as a veteran might.
Gordon was the starter last year but he didn’t go more than two sets of downs without Williams coming in. It was 1A Gordon; 1B Williams.
Those roles figure to be adjusted this year. Gordon found there wasn’t much of a free-agent market for a 29-year-old running back and wound up accepting a significant financial haircut to a 2022 salary of $2.5 million. In a perverse sense, Gordon can now run free from contract expectations.
At least the Broncos liked him enough to bring him back, even if he becomes the No. 2 running back this season.
"I know a lot of people are wanting me to take a backseat," Gordon said last month. "I get it. … Thanks for the motivation, everybody. I appreciate ya’ll for the extra motivation."
Williams figures to be ready for a greater role. A 300-carry season, perhaps? Only two running backs crossed that threshold last season – Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor and fellow rookie Najee Harris of Pittsburgh. Taylor took off in year 2. He received 100 more carries than he did as a rookie and turned them into nearly 650 more yards and 7 more touchdowns.
Expecting a similar year 2 leap from Williams may be a bit much. But there are multiple media outlets who have Williams on their top 10 running back lists. With Gordon taking a while to sign this offseason, and then following personal tradition by skipping OTAs, Williams got all the offseason No. 1 rep workload with new quarterback Russell Wilson.
Plus, Williams isn’t a rookie, anymore.
"I’d say just being more confident," he said in late-May. "I feel like the hardest part last year wasn’t football, it was really off the field. Just everything that I had going on off the field, I feel like I’m just better with my time now and know how to manage things like that."
A backup role for Gordon may be difficult for a career-long No. 1 to accept but he and Williams are friends and it would be a surprise if it doesn’t work. Besides, new Broncos’ head coach and offensive play caller Nathaniel Hackett has experience in this type of thing. In Hackett’s previous three seasons as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator, Aaron Jones was the lead back for the first two but then the younger and more powerful AJ Dillion became 1A last year while Jones slipped to 1B.
And after going 13-3 and 13-3 in Hackett’s first two years in Green Bay, the Packers went 13-4 as Dillon and Jones combined for 1,602 yards rushing. That would do.
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