Running back Jonathan Williams finds new life in New Orleans

Jonathan Williams, who joined the Saints' roster last season after being released by the Buffalo Bills, appears to be the most likely contender to fill the four-game void left by Mark Ingram. Butch Dill/AP Photo

METAIRIE, La. -- Jonathan Williams was coming perilously close to becoming a "whatever happened to ..." story.

And to be honest, his career still hasn't really gotten past the line of scrimmage yet -- with only 94 career rushing yards in two seasons, all of them as a rookie with the Buffalo Bills in 2016.

But the New Orleans Saints' powerful, 223-pound running back says he has always prided himself on being the type of runner who keeps his legs churning after contact.

So that's what he did after a foot injury wiped out his promising senior season at Arkansas in 2015, when he had expectations of emerging as a first- or second-round draft pick. And that's what he did after he was surprisingly cut by the Bills after the preseason last summer.

Now Williams, 24, has found new life in New Orleans.

The Saints' decision to release veteran Terrance West on Tuesday further cemented Williams as the leading candidate to be paired with Alvin Kamara during Mark Ingram's four-game suspension to start the season. He still needs to hold off rookie Boston Scott, among other candidates.

"I got cut from [Buffalo], and it hurt. ... You know, it's not the image I had of myself. So it was tough. But I just continued to believe in myself, and I prayed to God ... and put my head down and kept working," said Williams, who initially joined the Denver Broncos' practice squad last September before signing with the Saints in November and reuniting with his old college running backs coach Joel Thomas.

Williams actually backed out of an agreement to join the Atlanta Falcons when the Saints' offer came about 30 minutes later on the same day last year. And he hasn't regretted his choice -- even though he never appeared in a game with the Saints in 2017. They essentially "redshirted" him as a healthy inactive every week.

It turned out to be a good way to get his foot in the door, though, when the unexpected opportunity arose this year after Ingram was suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Even though the Saints drafted Scott in April and signed veterans West and Shane Vereen in June and July, Williams seems to have outpaced all of them so far, highlighted by 12 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown in two preseason games.

"It's not like it hurt my feelings or anything," Williams said of the Saints bringing in West and Vereen as competition. "I was already gonna be working as hard as I could anyway.

"I'm not sure what happened in Buffalo, but I wanted to be in the shape [this offseason] that I would put everything out there. If I ended up getting cut or somebody doesn't want me, it's not because I didn't put everything I have into it."

Williams was a fifth-round draft choice under former Bills coach Rex Ryan in 2016 -- and he performed pretty well during the 2017 preseason. But he was apparently released last summer because new Bills coach Sean McDermott decided to go with veteran Mike Tolbert, whom he was familiar with in his previous stop at Carolina, and because Williams wasn't as much of a special teams asset as other backup running backs.

Williams said he didn't feel as if he was out of shape in Buffalo or anything, but he did concentrate on his nutrition and his stamina this year to get in the best shape of his career. And he's now further removed from the foot injury, which was still a bit of a nagging issue during his rookie season.

"I feel like that's gonna be a part of my story, whenever it gets to that point," Williams said of the foot injury he suffered three years ago this month. "But it's something that you can't complain about. It happened, and you've gotta move forward."

This summer, Williams has drawn praise from coaches and from his offensive and defensive teammates with his combination of power, speed and elusiveness.

"He's a strong runner. He breaks a lot of tackles, decisive when he makes a decision to get downhill ... pretty fast," Ingram said. "He's been doing a good job last couple of weeks getting his confidence. I think when he made those couple of plays in the first preseason game, it gave him confidence to keep going. He's doing real good."

Coach Sean Payton also credited Williams for his vision and his quality work during goal-line runs in both the preseason opener and practices.

And Drew Brees praised Williams for an area of his game that is especially important to the veteran quarterback -- his pass protection.

"I think once the pads come on, he's an impressive guy. He's run the ball extremely well. But I think more so than that, he's stuck his nose in there in pass protection better than anybody I've seen in a while," Brees said. "He really takes pride in that, and obviously that's a role amongst our running backs that they take really great pride in. Alvin and Mark both [do], and typically that takes some evolution."

Williams probably sealed his place in the running back race by following up his strong preseason debut with an even better week in practice and another strong performance in the second preseason game.

He knows he has to keep those legs churning.

"Every day I wake up, I tell myself to act like, 'This might be your last day,'" Williams said. "I didn't get to play last year. So that's a motivating factor every day I wake up."