Avery Williams is going to be this team’s punt returner this year barring a massive upset, and he’ll likely at least mix in as the team’s kick returner. In an effort to ensure he’s contributing elsewhere, the Falcons shifted him away from a crowded cornerback depth chart and made him a running back, a surprising but intriguing move.
While Williams had his moments in very limited opportunities on defense last year, Atlanta’s been steadily stocking their cornerback group all offseason, and Williams figured to be no better than fifth on the depth chart. After seeing him as a returner, which requires vision, speed, and shiftiness that should translate nicely to running the ball on offense, the Falcons made a move that lessens the logjam but also gives Williams a real shot at carving out a solid career at a much thinner position.
The question, of course, is how this is going to work out. While I think it’s a worthwhile move and one that’s likely to yield at least a useful reserve, I know others are more dubious about the chances of Williams succeeding at running back and view this as a troubling sign for his chances of making the roster. We can’t really answer that today—Williams is going to have to earn his spot in training camp and preseason like everyone else—but we can check in on how Williams is feeling about it.
Scott Bair had a nice writeup on Williams’ transition earlier this week, both in terms of what it means for Williams and how he’s responding to it. Even though Williams played running back in high school, this is a big change, after all. The upshot is that the player likes it and coaches seem to, as well, which is a nice early sign.
“I was all for it,” Williams said. “The staff understands and I understand that my gift to the team starts on special teams. That will always be a priority. That’s how I’m going to make an impact and help us win games. However I can maximize my skill set and help the team even more, that’s a bonus. Making the switch to offense, I took no issue with that. I love it. I embrace it. I’m pretty excited about it.”
Special teams coordinator Marquice Williams and running backs coach Michael Pitre also think the move will go well:
“Vision, ball security, elusiveness, all those things will help him on the offensive side,” Falcons special teams coach Marquice Williams said. “He also has an edge to him from being a defender. He also knows how defenders want to attack ball carriers and he can use that against the opposition.
Again, it seems clear Williams is the prohibitive favorite for one or both returner roles, and this is about finding a way for him to deliver value in other ways. That’s unlikely to mean a truly significant role on offense right out of the gate, but even a handful of touches per game could be impactful if the team can get him into space where his speed plays so well. As a long-term project for a team without a settled running back group in 2023 and beyond, Williams is legitimately interesting, and even small value this year will help him. If he’s one of the league’s better returners this year—and to be clear, I think he can be—anything he delivers on offense will be gravy.
In summary, at worst Williams will be a major contributor on special teams in 2022. We’ll see if he can carve out any kind of real role in the backfield, as well, which would make him the kind of player the Falcons will keep around for a long while. Be sure to read Bair’s piece here.