GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jamaal Williams spent last week at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, where he talked with NFL hopefuls who played in the pre-draft all-star game.
They asked the Green Bay Packers rookie for advice on how to prepare for the draft and what it takes to make in the NFL.
But the running back, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, couldn’t stop thinking about the advice he was given before he left Green Bay after the season. It was in his exit interviews with running backs coach Ben Sirmans and coach Mike McCarthy that the Packers’ leading rusher this past season learned what he needs to take his game to the next level.
“We were just in agreement that I’ve got to get my feet quicker and just get a little more speed happening and make sure that my knees are up,” Williams said in a phone interview during a break in the NFLPA-sponsored college all-star game near Los Angeles.
“So, I’m just going to be working on my lateral movements, speed, make sure I get my knees up, make sure my lower body’s a lot stronger.”
That will begin this week near Phoenix, where he plans to train with his uncle, Luke Neal, who also works with Cardinals linebacker Scooby Wright.
Yes, Williams rushed for a team-best 556 yards in a season in which he finally stopped the revolving door at running back. But he did so in grind-it-out fashion, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry.
He knows that Ty Montgomery will return next season after wrist surgery that landed him on season-ending injured reserve and that fellow rookie Aaron Jones will be over his two knee injuries that cost him four games this season. That means that just because he was the Packers’ leading rusher in 2017 doesn't mean he is guaranteed anything for 2018.
“I learned that on every team, no matter what, everybody’s a superstar, and you’ve got weapons,” Williams said. “Everybody’s got to touch the ball. There’s just so many superstars, especially on my team with Aaron [Rodgers], Davante [Adams], Jordy [Nelson], Randall [Cobb]. We just spread the ball around.
“When you’re in college, you’re used to, like, two guys -- two superstars -- on the team who get the ball consistently. I liked it because it just shows that you’ve got to keep working hard, and every year there’s going to be a new batch coming in, so you’ve got to make sure you improve every offseason.”
But there won’t likely be many -- if any -- new running backs. The position appears stocked after former general manager Ted Thompson picked three in last year’s draft: Williams (at No. 134 overall from BYU), Jones (at No. 182 from UTEP) and seldom-used Devante Mays (at No. 238 from Utah State).
It’s another reason Williams knows that he needs to be more explosive. Yes, he gained more than half of his yards after contact (51.8 percent to be exact), according to ESPN Stats & Information. By comparison, NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt got 47.9 percent of his yards after first contact, and second-leading rusher Todd Gurley gained just 39.8 percent of his yards after initial contact.
But as tough as Williams proved to be -- he was the only Packers running back who didn’t miss a game this season -- he lacked big plays. Of his 153 carries, he had only five explosive runs, defined by McCarthy as a gain of 12 or more yards.
By comparison, the speedier Jones had 10 explosive rushes despite carrying only 81 times.
“It just comes with time and repetition,” Williams said. “I felt like I was getting better and better at it as the season went by. So next year, it really won’t be anything new to me. I’ll just be able to come in and start where I left off.”
It was at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl that Williams signed hundreds of rookie trading cards that will be included in the 2017-18 Panini football card packets. Williams was supposed to sign over the course of a couple of days. Instead, he decided to get it all done at once in a four-hour, hand-cramping session.
“That’s the warrior mentality of playing football,” Williams said.
It helped Williams ride things out when Montgomery began the season as the starter and then Jones got the next shot. It wasn’t until both were injured in Week 10 against the Bears that Williams got his shot to be the No. 1 back, a job he didn’t give up the rest of the season.
“When Aaron and Ty went down, and they were like, ‘Jamaal, you’re going to run the ball,’ I was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment, and I’m going to go out there and do what I need to do,’” Williams said. “That, for me, made me feel like all my hard work is paying off.”