Jameson Williams should be the NFL’s next breakout receiver

USA Today

When the Kansas City Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins in March, 2022, there was one receiver I thought might replicate Hill’s demonic speed at all areas of the field for Andy Reid’s team, and that receiver wasn’t even in the NFL yet.

That receiver was Alabama’s Jameson Williams, who torched the NCAA for 79 catches, 1,572 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2021 before suffering a torn ACL in the College Football Championship against Georgia. I thought that injury might put Williams in a place where the Chiefs could grab him in the first round, but the Detroit Lions had other ideas. They selected Williams with the 12th overall pick in the 2022 draft, knowing that his injury would limit his first-year playing time, and not knowing whether it would affect his explosive abilities. The Chiefs picked Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie with the 21st overall pick, and went on to win the next two Super Bowls. So, good for them.

The point remains, however, that Williams has shown his continued ability to terrify opposing defensive backs with his vertical speed and angular quickness. He missed the first 11 games of his rookie season, had no catches on one target against the Jacksonville Jaguars in his NFL debut, and then gave the Minnesota Vikings a taste of what was to come with his first NFL catch — which was a 41-yard touchdown. The Vikings kinda forgot to cover Williams here, which was a mistake they wouldn’t make again.

But that was Williams’ only catch in the 2022 season on eight targets. The hope was that he would build it up last season, but injuries once again conspired against him, and he caught just 30 passes on 51 targets for 433 yards and three touchdowns. As a deep receiver, Williams wasn’t quite the threat the Lions had hoped, but he still caught five passes of 20 or more air yards on 16 targets for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Part of the limited deep effectiveness had to do with things Williams needs to refine; part of it was that as good as Jared Goff is, pinpoint deep throws are not the first thing you think about in his case.

So, here we are in Year 3 of the Jameson Williams Experience, and everybody is saying the right things.

The Lions believe that it’s Williams’ time to shine.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

The primary story out of Detroit’s minicamps has been Williams’ development and maturity — it’s important to remember that the third-year man just turned 23 on March 26. Head coach Dan Campbell’s relentless positivity about Williams started during Campbell’s media session at the 2024 scouting combine.

“He progressed,” Campbell said of Williams in February. “All we asked of him was growth. Just get better, a little bit better, and become one of the guys. Somebody that we can rely on in this offense. Just do your job and that’s exactly what he did.

“He is going to push to be a full-time starter and that’s what we’re looking for. Everybody grows at a different rate. Maybe it’s taken him a little bit longer, but he is developing and growing. The kid has come on. We’ve got high hopes for him and [we] see him continuing to grow.”

When asked in May where Williams has specifically improved, Campbell made it short and sweet:

“Everywhere.”

“I think I’ve matured a lot,” Williams told reporters after May 24th’s practice. “Coming in the league, I still had some childish ways. Wanted to do what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it. Sometimes you got to listen, and just be on the right track. Follow the right path, and you’ll be down the right way.

“I’ve been working. I’ve been putting in work ever since the season ended.”

We don’t yet know what that work will show once the 2024 season rolls around, but Williams has already shown enough in his brief time on the field to make such improvements quite tantalizing for a Lions offense that already has more on the ball than most from a personnel and schematic perspective.

Taking the top off a defense.

(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

There are only a handful of receivers in the NFL at any time who can, by dint of their mere presence, force opposing secondaries to switch their concepts to bow to the sheer speed of one player. Williams has that potential. because there are already times when he’s turned that into a reality.

Williams’ 63-yard catch against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17 was one example. The Cowboys were in off Quarters, and that put cornerback DaRon Bland one-on-one with Williams as safety Malik Hooker checked to Amon-Ra St. Brown’s sit route. Bland is a very good corner in off coverage, but he didn’t stand a chance here.

The Buccaneers found Williams’ speed just as difficult to deal with on this 45-yard touchdown in Week 6.

Williams has also shown that explosiveness as a runner on sweeps — to an historic degree.

Williams is more than a straight-line speed guy.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

If Williams was just a vertical guy who couldn’t do much else, there obviously wouldn’t be as much to his game. As was the case during his college days, Williams has a nice, nuanced sense of coverage openings, and how to exploit them. Moreover, he’s not afraid of getting hit as he takes the ball in.

Williams caught 11 passes on 17 targets on passes of 10-19 air yards, and that’s in part because he can track the ball and adjust on the fly to what’s coming his way. So, there’s more to his game than just the one thing.

What still needs work.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

If there are two things I think need work in Williams’ case, it’s his ability to win contested catch battles, and to consistently beat press coverage. Last season, Williams caught just six of his 15 targets against press, and just six of his 17 targets that turned into contested catches.

As I intimated before, some of this is on Williams, but a lot of it is on Goff, whose deep throws tend to lose energy the farther they go.

This near-touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with 8:36 left in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game showed that Williams could get free from aggressive press coverage, and if he didn’t have to adjust for Goff’s velocity, this could have easily been an amazing house call. The Lions were down 27-24 at the time, failed to score on that drive, and the only score they had after that in a 34-31 loss was Goff’s three-yard touchdown pass to Williams with 56 seconds left in the game.

This incompletion against the Denver Broncos in Week 16 had Williams going against Patrick Surtain II, so the bar is pretty high, as Surtain is one of the NFL’s best press cornerbacks. But Williams actually had separation from Surtain at the end of the route, but Goff and Williams couldn’t take advantage.

So, these components are as much about Goff as they are about Williams, but however these things are improved, it’ll be a key part of whatever the Jameson Williams story is in 2024.

The best version of Jameson Williams could flip the NFL’s balance of power.

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lions were a few plays from the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance last season, and if all goes well in 2024, maybe Detroit will celebrate its first NFL championship since 1957. The team is that good and that well-coached, and it’s entirely likely that it’s offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s final year without a head coaching job. Johnson is one of the best in the NFL at maximizing the effects of receiver splits and distribution, and tying the pass game to the run game.

All the Lions need is that one extra element to put them over the top. And if Jameson Williams realizes his amazing potential, that could very well be it.

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