Could Javonte Williams be RB1 in the Broncos’ backfield in 2021?

The Denver Broncos traded up early in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft to select running back Javonte Williams. General manager George Paton negotiated a trade with the Atlanta Falcons, and with that selection, took the former University of North Carolina standout No. 35 overall. What does that mean for Williams as the potential starter in the Broncos’ backfield in 2021, and how does it impact fantasy football?

We asked PFN’s Video Director and Broncos Analyst Cody Roark what he has heard about Williams and his performance at camp so far.

“Williams has been fully engrained in Broncos OTAs while Melvin Gordon has been working on his own away from the team facility even though it’s ‘voluntary’ — Gordon entering final year of deal — Williams will put pressure on him.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has caused Williams to climb draft boards and his overall fantasy potential.

Javonte Williams’ NFL Draft stock rose significantly last season

Williams attended Wallace-Rose Hill High School in Teachey, North Carolina. He rushed for an astounding 2,271 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior. The only FBS school that offered Williams was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He graduated as his high school’s valedictorian and became a true freshman at North Carolina.

Early years at North Carolina

Williams played in 11 games during the 2018 season for the Tar Heels. He rushed for 224 yards and 5 touchdowns on 43 attempts. Williams also had 8 receptions for 58 yards. As a sophomore in 2019, he played in all 13 games and was part of a running back by committee with Michael Carter. He rushed for 933 yards on 166 attempts and scored 5 touchdowns. Additionally, Williams caught 17 passes for 176 receiving yards and a touchdown. His NFL Draft stock rose significantly in 2020 along with Carter.

A dominant final season

Williams was considered a “dark horse” candidate for last year’s Heisman Trophy. He and Carter were the top running back duo in the FBS in 2020. Williams finished last season with 157 rushing attempts, 1,140 rushing yards, and 19 rushing touchdowns. His 1,140 rushing yards were the 13th most in the University of North Carolina history, sixth-most in the country, and third-best in the ACC. He generated 27 rushes of 15 or more yards, averaging a robust 7.3 yards per attempt. Williams also caught 25 passes for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The UNC RB excelled at producing yards after contact and was one of the best running backs in the nation in creating missed tackles. He was named a second-team AP All-American and second-team All-ACC as a junior. This was impressive, considering Williams only started once in 11 games. Once the dust settled on the 2020 college football season, he became one of the top running backs in the 2021 class.

Williams runs like the Juggernaut from X-Men and has more athleticism than his build projects. He has the route-running ability, pass-protection skills, and toughness to take over as a three-down running back early in his career. Williams lands on a Broncos team that also has Melvin Gordon on the roster. The veteran back is scheduled to become a free agent in 2022.

Williams thrived at North Carolina as part of a running back by committee — he can do it again in Denver.

Williams could be named the starter for Week 1

The training camp battle between Williams and Gordon is one many in the fantasy football community will be watching closely this summer. It would be surprising to see the Broncos select Williams so high in the draft and not have him designated to be the starter. It was also reported that Gordon has not participated during the Broncos’ voluntary organized team activities (OTAs). Denver’s mandatory minicamp begins on June 15, and everyone will be watching to see if Gordon makes an appearance.

The Broncos enter the 2021 season with 127 unaccounted rushing attempts due to the departure of Phillip Lindsay. Denver’s head coach Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur hoped Gordon and Lindsay would become a dynamic duo and form a formidable running game. However, this never came to fruition. Lindsay missed four games early in the season, and Gordon missed one game, but the duo inevitably didn’t click.

Nonetheless, Denver will continue to use a shared backfield. It will allow both backs to remain healthy.

Opportunity knocks

Williams’ skill set is similar to Gordon’s. This will help Shurmur significantly as he executes the Broncos’ offensive game plan. Both backs are capable of running inside or outside and display excellence as receivers out of the backfield. Williams and Gordon are also solid in pass protection. Shurmur will not have to make any significant changes to his offense to accommodate Williams. Let’s dive deep into the running back opportunity share from last season.

The Broncos provided its RBs an average of 27.7 opportunities (rushing attempts plus targets) per game. Gordon averaged 17.3 opportunities per game. He only exceeded 20 opportunities in four games. From a fantasy perspective, Gordon only averaged 13.8 PPR fantasy points per contest in 2020. He had five RB1 performances, with one of these taking place in Week 17. Gordon averaged a solid 0.77 fantasy points per opportunity.

Lindsay, on the other hand, averaged 12 opportunities per game. His season-high of 23 opportunities came in Week 6. This was the lone game Gordon was inactive. Lindsay was ineffective for most of the season, averaging 0.50 fantasy points per opportunity.

The great news is that Williams will be walking into a situation with an allotted workload. Training camp and the preseason will dictate his opportunity share. Williams is already the most explosive and athletically gifted running back on the roster. He’ll also be running behind a capable offensive line.

Munchak and the offensive line

The Broncos will have a high percentage of their starters on the offensive line returning this season. Continuity is always a great thing when it comes to line play. The Broncos have one of the top offensive line coaches in the NFL in Mike Munchak. That hire continues to pay dividends for Denver.

The Broncos’ offensive line will be its deepest in years this season. They have the depth to withstand a 17-game season and to support whoever is named their starting quarterback. Furthermore, they will lean heavily on the running game in 2021. All of these factors provide a bright fantasy outlook for Williams.

Bringing it all together

Some don’t view Williams’ landing spot in Denver as a good one for fantasy football. I respectfully disagree. Gordon’s opportunity share from last season was a byproduct of Lindsay’s injuries and ineffectiveness.

The Broncos’ backfield is shaping up to be more of a 50/50 split. A reasonable floor for Williams is around 215 opportunities. This could increase dramatically depending on how effective he is early in the season with those touches. This situation could be similar to Cam Akers’ and Jonathan Taylor’s last season — both became league winners as the season progressed.

Williams is an excellent target at his current ADP on most formats. He is readily available near the double-digit rounds. Williams can be viewed as a high-end RB3 with upside for much more.

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