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Since the middle of last year, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen about how 2008 will be DeAngelo Williams’ breakout year. I sincerely believed it and still do. He has some things to work on, some fundamentals to clear up and a talented young rookie ready to take the starting job -- but if Williams can clear up the problems he has with blocking and picking up the blitz, he has the talent to not only keep the majority of carries, but keep the for a long time.
Word out of Panthers camp is that they’ve more or less given up on him as the starter due to his pass protection issues and if they don’t clear up soon he’ll remain a third down back for the rest of his time there. Never one to go back on a prediction unless there’s blatant evidence to the contrary staring me in the face, I decided to try and go into some of the reasons the Panthers shouldn’t give up on Williams just yet.
Williams has seen some injuries both in college and the pros and many believe that at 5’9” and 217 pounds he doesn’t have what it takes to withstand the vigor’s that come with being a starting running back. Coming to this conclusion years from now would be okay, but Williams is going into his third NFL season. Players can train harder and get their body better acclimated to the NFL game even it takes them a few years to do so.
The perfect example? Brian Westbrook. Westbrook had a similar rep for getting injured from time to time and at 5’10” and 203 pounds he is almost anatomically identical to Williams. Early on in his career he too wasn’t considered a starting running back but over time he has proven to be fully capable and a dual threat weapon that gives defenses and fantasy owners alike fits.
Westbrook and Williams’ receiving stats from their first two years are nearly identical (418 and 488 yards respectably), with Williams rushing for around 400 more yards than Westbrook (1,218 compared to 806 yards).
It’s hard to believe that Williams isn’t working as hard as he can on his blocking deficiencies if that’s the major reason the organization is weary of him becoming the starter. He’s only been in the league two years, playing the third down back/speedster with good hands role the entire time. Either he hasn’t had enough solid in game experience to become proficient at it or maybe he was trying to do too much and hit a home run.
The Panthers have gone 15-17 the past two years and for most of 2007 didn’t have a competent quarterback under center. With the QB not really a threat, defenses had no problems using different blitzing packages to counter-attack the run and rush the passer. Is it that much of a stretch to think that maybe the different combinations of blitzes the Panthers offense faced last year had a tad to do with Williams’ inability to pick them up?
Although Williams may have been partially to blame, shouldn’t the offensive line be taking some heat, considering Panthers QB’s were sacked once every 15.3 plays last season? Assuming Delhomme returns to a healthy form, some solid studying of blitz packages and a better understanding of who to block when under assignment in the backfield, Williams should be just fine.
Williams has more rushing yards than all but four of the running backs taken in the 2006 NFL Draft and he’s had 50-200 less carries than the top five. He also has the fourth highest receiving yards out of all of the 2006 rookie running backs and considering that everyone who has ahead of him in rushing and reception yards are starters, it’s safe to assume that Williams could be an feature back if he was just given more snaps.
With nearly every team drifting towards a running back by committee, the Panthers already have one set up for the future. If Williams can fix his affinity for blocking, picking up the blitz and getting the occasional injury, the Panthers organization would be crazy not to give him a chance to be the starter out of the committee.