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14 Dec 2013
by Matt Waldman
People love the idea of being one step ahead of everyone else. It’s why the question, "Who is a player you like in next year’s draft?" is one of the most common I receive.
I spend so much time studying the prospects most likely to declare for this year’s draft that I’m not devoting in-depth analysis to next year’s guys. I get why people want to know and I respect the curiosity, but I dislike this question.
My work is about intuition and process. The longer I do this work, the more I believe in striving for a balance between listening to that inner voice and still honoring the value of a process.
Sometimes you know the first time you lay eyes on a person that there’s something special there. I knew it the first time I saw Alicia Johnson. After our first conversation, I had this feeling of absolute certainty that I just met my future wife.
It was a beautiful moment that was equally terrifying. And why wouldn’t it be? If you have any shred of logic in your being, the idea of knowing something as a fact without having conscious knowledge of the facts is unsettling no matter how many times it occurs during your life.
But there’s a difference between crazy and stupid, so I dated Alicia 13 months before proposing marriage. I needed to know that this "certainty" I was experiencing wouldn’t reveal itself as temporary infatuation. I wanted to make sure that flash of knowledge was illuminating the true dynamics of our relationship and not blinding it.
I may be crazy, but I try to avoid stupidity when at all possible. While I fail often in this regard, marrying Alicia was one of the smartest decisions I’ve made in my life. We have been married four years and the love and underlying certainty that I felt on that first day I met her has never wavered.
I share this Hallmark moment because there are occasions where I have felt that same jolt of certainty when watching football players. Although the implications of meeting the love of your life and identifying a talented college prospect are quite different, that feeling of certainty about a player despite limited exposure to his game is often unsettling.
There is the exception of young love where innocence and naivety can embolden you to take risks without much forethought. The equivalent of my first young love at first sight moment as an evaluator was Adrian Peterson.
Peterson’s game made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck -– even in a class where Marshawn Lynch was arguably a more refined talent. Yet, there was no doubt that Peterson had what it took to be a once-in-a-generation talent and this was exactly the take I stated in my second year of my RSP publication:
"Raw talent alone, Peterson is one of the top two players in this entire draft. If he can be more disciplined as a runner (decision-making and ball security) –- he has the type of rare power-speed-balance combos shared among the all-time great backs of the Brown-Dickerson-Campbell lineage."
I was so jazzed watching Peterson that I forced two of my former colleagues at a fantasy football website to watch Peterson take on Oregon’s defense -- which was loaded with Haloti Ngata, Walter Thurmond, and Jairus Byrd -- at the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.
It was like watching experienced Cowboys failing to break a wild horse. Or Bengal Tigers pursuing a silver and black Rhino from Bessemer, Alabama.
I was still relatively innocent to how it feels as a football writer and analyst when you go out on a limb and make a bold statement about a player and the player doesn’t back it up. As the years passed and I made mistakes in judgment with players, it became natural to approach the idea of bold statements with more caution. It hasn’t stopped me from making them, but my thought process is far more agonizing behind the page.
If the process yields a conclusion that matches that flash of intuition, I’m still going to put it out there. But it becomes more difficult to do as I accumulate experience.
I’m explaining this because I want you to understand that I’m going to answer the question "Who is a player you like in next year’s draft?" without the benefit of putting that player’s game through my evaluation process. I’m acting solely on intuition. The player whose game has evoked that feeling that I might be watching something special is Florida State’s third-string running back Karlos Williams.
Currently working behind Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, two pro-caliber prospects, Williams is only earning time in the Seminoles backfield during blowouts. Despite only seeing a handful of carries and a kick return, I have a feeling that in five years Williams will be the best NFL runner of the three FSU backs.
It’s an assertion I told an NFL scout on Wednesday night. I told him it wasn’t something I’d ever say publicly until I saw a lot more game film and not just situations where Williams had fresh legs facing blown-out competition. However, I changed my mind. Intuition is part of the process, and I want to use this article as kind of a time capsule to see how it plays out after I study Williams for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
I’m far from the first evaluator of talent, scout, or coach to see one thing from a prospect and have the feeling of absolute certainty that player was special. Again I’m talking about a limited number of plays, not 30-40 touches or a season. Watch Adrian Peterson, Bo Jackson, and Marshawn Lynch in that context and it’s easier "to know."
In ESPN’s 30 for 30 movie, "You Don’t Know Bo," a Yankees scout drives from New York to Alabama to watch Jackson take one swing in batting practice and it was all that evaluator needed to see. It was said during an ESPN broadcast of a Pitt game a few years ago that Dave Wannstedt saw one play of Cleveland Browns runner Dion Lewis and told the recruiters to offer the back a scholarship.
I’ve experienced this intuitive flash from limited exposure with far more players than the demigods of the playing field I mentioned above, including talented mortals like Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte, and Robert Edwards. It’s the same way that I "knew" that I had just met my wife. I want to write this now to see what happens later.
I don’t know where Williams fits along the spectrum of backs that I mentioned. The initial feeling I got when I watched Williams evoked the same one I got when I saw the likes of Peterson or Jackson.
However, my experience wants to temper that feeling. It wants me to qualify that Williams may have the skills to provide moments that are almost as impressive as these truly great athletes, but less often in frequency.
When intuition is correct, it’s a much faster delivery process built on extensive knowledge that’s behind the curtain of our conscious minds. But experience wants to see the process unfold.
It’s why I’m reticent to make such a bold statement about Williams. Even still, what I have no problem telling you is that I believe Williams will be better than Freeman and Wilder and he might be the reason Freeman and Wilder are considering the 2014 NFL Draft as juniors.
Wilder has Peterson’s frame and he flashes impressive balance, but he makes decisions that require him to work harder than he should to earn yards. Wilder also exposes his body to unnecessary contact that could limit his potential at long-term stardom.
Freeman is quick, savvy, and versatile. But at 5-foot-9, 203 pounds, it’s more likely the Seminoles lead back finds a place in the NFL as a committee option. Both runners have the skills to develop into productive NFL players. Yet I have a feeling it’s Williams who can be special.
Here are three plays that evoke this feeling. I’ll explain what I saw with analysis, but to belabor the point, there was an accompanying flash of intuition that I cannot articulate further. Some of you won’t understand or agree that there’s merit or logic to what I’m sharing. That’s your prerogative. I don’t care.
Williams is a former five-star recruit at safety. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, he has the raw strength that matches or exceeds Wilder as a power runner. He also has 10.2-speed in the 100 that makes Freeman look slow by comparison. The first play is a demonstration of Williams’ game-changing speed before he became a full-time running back.
Williams is a former five-star recruit at safety. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, he has the raw strength that matches or exceeds Wilder as a power runner. He also has 10.2-speed in the 100 that makes Freeman look slow by comparison.
The first play is a demonstration of Williams’ game-changing speed before he became a full-time running back.
The gear Williams finds while approaching midfield on this touchdown run is rare. Although Wilder holds a defender on this play, it wasn’t even necessary; the hole was big enough that the defender has no chance to reach a ball carrier with Williams’ speed.
When a runner has this kind of speed in this big of a frame, it only takes sound fundamentals to become a dangerous player capable of wreaking havoc in the second and third level of a defense once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage.
Of course, what I just said makes getting beyond the line of scrimmage sound simple, when that’s actually the most difficult skill of running with the football. What Williams lacks in experience between the tackles, he compensates with excellent footwork.
The feet are an essential part of a good running back. Philip Rivers was asked about Ryan Mathews’ improvement during a post-game interview on NFL Network Thursday night. The Chargers quarterback talked about footwork.
Rivers told the audience that in his experience practicing and playing with running backs, a player’s feet are a telling sign of how well they integrate what they see on the field. Rivers said Mathews demonstrated this improvement of footwork in training camp.
Williams is still learning the subtleties of the position, but his feet provide the framework for his balance and vision. One would think that a player of Williams' size would be a long strider, but this is not the case.
This first-down run in the fourth quarter -– a toss play intended to go inside -- reveals a short stride that serves the runner well through traffic.
One of the areas where I think Williams' teammate James Wilder struggles is his stride. It’s a longer stride that forces more awkward and difficult changes of direction.
Williams has no such problem. He can pick and slide through traffic without dramatic changes of direction that leave him unbalanced. This is an excellent trait for a runner to possess because he can act faster on what he sees. Marshall Faulk was excellent at varying his stride length and was great at keeping his steps short while approaching the line of scrimmage.
The run that wowed me for its display of footwork and hip flexibility is the next play in this series -– a second-and-4 run for 21 yards.
The stride length to the hole and precision of Williams’ feet to change direction -– including how fast he turns his hips -– earns the runner a huge cutback lane to the left side. This was the kind of footwork common from top Williams prospects of years past -- Ryan and DeAngelo. However, these two were in the range of 190-210 pounds. Karlos, like Adrian Peterson, has the feet and quickness to change direction of a back 20-30 pounds lighter.
It’s difficult to articulate, much less trust, a flash of intuition when your job is to provide detailed evaluation and analysis -- especially when there’s not a lot to see on tape and you could just say "I haven’t seen enough yet." That’s the safe route. In most cases, I take that road.
But this column is called "Futures," and it’s about projecting the unknown.
Sometimes it’s worth exploring the gut feeling –- a route we don’t talk about without denigrating it as "bad process," when I’d think it’s more accurately described as an "incomplete process."
Williams will be the future of a running back stable in 2014 on perhaps the most talent-rich team in college football. Sometimes I want to point out a player who catches my eye and tell you about him even if the analysis won’t match the feeling.
I believe Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher’s decision to put Williams at running back had intuition as a factor. Despite limited carries as a high school running back, Fisher has long maintained that Williams was a natural fit at the position.
Thanks in part to the return of Lamarcus Joyner and the development of other talent at safety, Fisher decided to switch Williams to running back this summer. Watch this video to the 1:50 mark below and note the early grin when asked the initial question and then how often his eyes widen as he talks about Williams.
When asked at the end, "How does he look?" Fisher looks like he swallowed the canary and he's dying to show us the feathers. I can’t wait to examine the whole bird.
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