FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Jamal Agnew didn’t remember it at first. It happened so long ago and didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, so the memory faded. He was at the University of San Diego then, trying to make the NFL. The date has long been forgotten, but Agnew was asked to host a visitor on a recruiting trip.
Like Agnew, Avery Williams was an underrated prospect in California. He was small but shifty with high-level return skills but overlooked by bigger programs on the west coast. San Diego was interested.
When they talked about football over dinner back then they couldn’t have imagined at the time they’d be on the same NFL field years later. They were similar players trying to find a way. They were to have met for the first time as professionals Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), when rookie cornerback/returner Williams and the Atlanta Falcons travel to take on Agnew's Jacksonville Jaguars. But Agnew sustained a hip injury against San Francisco and was placed on injured reserve Monday.
By the way, Agnew told Williams not to come to the University of San Diego because of its cost as a non-scholarship-offering school.
“That’s what I’d tell everybody, if you were in a financial situation where you can’t afford to pay for school without a lot of financial aid and grants and stuff, this is probably not the right spot for you,” Agnew said. “I just tried to be realistic. They obviously wanted us to try to get guys to come there and convince them, but I wanted people to make the best decisions for them financially.”
Agnew understood better than most; he was still paying off student loans years later in 2019. Williams listened, eventually choosing to walk-on at FBS Boise State, where he became the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year.
But Agnew always kept hearing about Williams. Two of Agnew’s teammates at San Diego, David and Daniel Tolbert, kept telling Agnew about their Boise State friend. As Agnew started his own career in the league, he kept an eye out on his old visitor.
And Williams certainly knew Agnew, who became an All-Pro returner as a rookie in 2017.
“I definitely broke down film of him,” Williams said. “Even while I was in college, and any college player that wants to improve or get better, you’re going to look at top guys at the next level to try and implement their game into yours.
“That’s definitely what I did.”
They hadn’t reconnected, though, until much later. After Williams was drafted by the Falcons this year, Agnew reached out via social media to congratulate him. They wished each other good luck.
When they did talk, Agnew offered another piece of advice -- one he was taking himself. Agnew, like Williams, began his career as a defensive back. Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Williams, because of Isaiah Oliver’s injury, is being asked to do more than they initially had planned for as a rookie. Williams, according to Pro Football Reference, has given up nine completions in 12 targets for 104 yards and a touchdown and also has 13 tackles, a fumble recovery and three quarterback hits.
Agnew played sparingly as a rookie -- not thrust into a major role because of injury like Williams was at nickel after Oliver suffered a season-ending knee injury -- but was primarily a defensive back in his second year.
While they are different players, Agnew saw enough in the skillset to offer Williams the same thought of what he ended up doing last season: Switching to offense full-time. Again, Agnew would know. In his second-year as a full-time receiver, Agnew had 24 catches for 229 yards and a touchdown along with seven rushes for 111 yards and a touchdown before landing on injured reserve.
He was also the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September after a 102-yard kick return for a touchdown, the longest in the NFL this season.
“When he got drafted I told him you might as well just tell them to put you on offense like me,” Agnew said. “Don’t even waste the time on defense, but obviously he wants to play DB. I haven’t talked to him since then, but I remember telling him they should move you to offense right now.
“But I definitely see the similarities because he’s fearless back there. He can return kicks. He can return punts. He’s not just a one-cut guy. He can one-cut. He can get you on the edge. I definitely see a lot of similarities between our games.”
It’s a future not out of the realm of possibility. When the Falcons drafted Williams, Smith said he could see him as someone who could play offense, defense and special teams. Earlier this month, Smith again said he could “certainly” see Williams on offense one day and that he “wouldn’t count anything out,” although it may not happen this year.
“Avery is one of those guys that every job he gets he’s going to do well at,” Smith said. “He’s just, that’s his personality. He’s such a bright guy, very instinctive.”
Agnew and Williams are tied in more ways though. Agnew might have played a role in Williams ending up in Atlanta.
Back in free agency, when Agnew considered Atlanta, he had familiarity with Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams, who had coached him with the Detroit Lions. They worked well together and become close.
As Agnew was making his decision -- he eventually signed a three-year, $14.25 million deal with Jacksonville -- he knew Atlanta was looking for solutions at returner. So he mentioned to his former coach there was a player with incredibly strong return skills and special teams ability in the draft he needed to pay attention to.
While that wasn’t the only time he’d heard about him and the only selling point, it added to the opinion Marquice Williams had of the player they’d draft with the No. 183 pick.
“He had an idea of who he was,” Agnew said. “But I told him to check out his film, and he just fell in love with him.”