ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The football went everywhere he went, tightly tucked under his arm. He took it to the wide receiver drills he couldn’t participate in, as he recovered from a torn ACL. It was with him in his position meetings, where he studied the game he couldn’t play. As he awaited his much-anticipated NFL debut, Lions rookie Jameson Williams could always be spotted with a football in his hands. He’s a competitor, and this was his way of staying connected.
But now that he’s healthy and active, with a month of game experience under his belt, when might we see that football in his hands more on Sundays?
“It’s about patience,” Williams said Thursday. “You can’t rush everything. (There’s) a plan and everything. It’s just patience.”
The Lions made a major investment in Williams this past April, trading up to select him 12th in the 2022 draft. They did it with patience in mind, along with the knowledge that he would need time to work his way back after suffering a torn ACL in January. He was afforded a lot of it. The Lions’ coaching staff was patient with him. He missed the first 11 games of the season. It felt like every week he was eligible to return, coach Dan Campbell fielded questions about the status of his young receiver. Finally, in Week 13 against the Jaguars, his debut arrived. And since then — albeit, in small doses — Williams has put all the traits on tape that enticed the Lions enough to go up and get him.
Jameson Williams’ 1st career catch is a TOUCHDOWN. 👏 @bigsgjamo
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2022
“I was so shocked how open he was,” quarterback Jared Goff said after the Vikings game. “(I) kind of was like, ‘Is there somebody back there?’ Kind of looked like I kicked it to him, but he caught it. Touchdown nonetheless.”
“It felt good,” Williams said then. “It was my first catch in the NFL. It was something I was looking forward to for a long time. It was a long time coming. It was good.”
It was a long time coming. About 11 months from the day he tore his ACL, in fact. Getting here was a process. During training camp, his coaches often talked about having to reel him in a bit, since it’s in his nature to want to do everything immediately. In October, he posted clips of himself running routes on Instagram, clearly champing at the bit to return. Even when it was time to make his NFL debut, Williams was ready to line up at gunner, knowing his offensive snaps would be somewhat limited, if the team needed him. He’s wired that way, and in that sense, he’s very much a Campbell guy. When he eventually finds his footing in this league, that should play well in the Lions’ locker room. There’s already a mutual respect between Williams and the other receivers.
“The excitement that you guys feel, that we feel, it’s real,” DJ Chark said of Williams earlier this month. “I definitely believe that he’s a superstar, so anything I can do to help a guy like that, I’m here. And he knows that. … He’s getting back into practicing, which is a huge step. Trust me, I understand. As soon as he’s on the field, that’s gonna be great for all of us. We all benefit from that, this team benefits from that. He’s got a bright future, and hopefully, it’s all here.”
“I’ve learned a lot from guys like them,” Williams said, when asked about watching Chark and Amon-Ra St. Brown. “I just watch them. I sat back and I was watching them since, like, fall camp. Even before then. How they train, how to do things. I just take certain things from that and add it to my game. That’s the kind of player I am. I see something I like, I’m trying to add that to my game.”
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It’s natural for young players to want to contribute and prove themselves. Williams is, and has been, a competitor. He transferred out of a crowded Ohio State wide receiver room that featured Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, with the belief that he had more to contribute. He followed it up with a Biletnikoff-caliber season in Tuscaloosa, hauling in 79 receptions for 1,572 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has never once doubted himself, and is now eager to show why he belongs in the NFL.
Although his snaps have been limited — eight, 13, 13 and 11 in his four games — Williams’ presence has had an impact on the way teams defend the Lions. Defensive coordinators must account for his natural ability to take the top off their unit. He only ran a handful of routes against the Jaguars, but Jacksonville clearly respected the speed he brings to the table, offering help over the top at times. The Vikings made the bold choice to leave him wide open on a downfield target that resulted in his first career catch and touchdown, good for 41 yards. And against the Jets, one of the better defenses in the league, Williams had a few steps on cornerback DJ Reed for what could have been a touchdown, if not for an underthrown ball from Goff. Perhaps a matter of timing that’s still developing.
Regardless, the best way to develop that is through on-field experience. Williams simply needs more of it. His elite trait — speed — is enough to warrant more, even as he navigates life in the NFL.
“We’ll get him more reps, yeah,” Campbell said Monday. “We’ll get him more reps.”
Among players with at least five targets this season, Williams ranks fifth in the NFL in air yards per target at 22.0, per TruMedia. An extremely small sample, to be sure, but it does sort of paint the picture of what he’s capable of doing. And why it would be wise to get him more involved.
Per Pro Football Focus, Williams was on the field for nine pass plays Sunday versus the Panthers. He received only one target, which fell short for an incompletion, in a game that saw the Lions abandon the run after trailing. The Lions would love to get their shiny new toy more involved, but not at the expense of game flow. It’s a delicate balance, as Goff and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson alluded to this week.
“He’s a great player and a guy that can change your offense and if we can get him the ball, it’s definitely helpful for us,” Goff said. “But it’s by no means something we want to force, and we’d love to get him the ball just like we’d love to get DJ Chark the ball and Josh Reynolds, and St. Brown and everyone the same way. But yeah, I think as his progression grows as a player, it’ll grow on our offense and he’s coming right along.”
“We try to work in all of our playmakers,” Johnson said. “He’s certainly in that group, but I think DJ’s shown that he’s going to make big plays for us. St. Brown has been our most consistent player over the course of the season. We’d be getting a lot of criticism if we’re not giving him the touches. Our backs are really good players when the ball’s in their hands, so, I mean, we have a lot of talent spread out. Each week, guys have plays in the game plan, and it’s a matter of whether the situation, the defense, allows us to get it to our primary receiver or not. So, no, I don’t think we’re pressing to force the ball to anybody. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, and if that means he gets a hundred-yard game this week, then great.”
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As Williams’ rookie year winds down, the expectation is that his workload will continue to increase. The Lions (7-8) have two regular-season games remaining, at home against the Bears on Sunday and at Green Bay in Week 18. They are comfortable with what he’s shown this year, and continue to see him as a foundational piece for years to come. They know what type of player they have in him, and this year was always going to be about setting things up for a bigger role in 2023.
Deep down, the competitor in Williams wants to contribute. In the meantime, though, that won’t stop him from taking the last few weeks of his rookie season in.
“It’s been good,” Williams said, smiling when asked about the year as a whole. “I’d say we’ve had a good season so far. Hopefully we can make it to the playoffs and see what we can do. But I would say the experience has been great to me. It’s my first season and that’s just something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life. It’s almost coming to an end this year. It’s been a great time.”
(Photos: Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)