Anthony Ratliff-Williams surprised a lot of Tar Heel fans, including myself, by declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft. You can’t really be shocked at any changes after a coaching change, but it stood to reason that UNC’s receivers may have been the position group with the clearest improvement potential from 2018 to 2019, if only because of an inevitable increase in quality of quarterback play. But he’s made his decision and is now going through the pre-draft process. He was not invited to the Combine, but put up an impressive Pro Day, and is now going through the process ahead of the last week of April (we’ll have more on that later). For now, let’s take a look at him as a prospect.
Ratliff-Williams, you may remember, was recruited to UNC as a 4-star dual threat quarterback who had briefly played wide receiver before in the class of 2015. At the time, UNC rostered a senior Marquise Williams and redshirt sophomore Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, and thought they’d get more than 2 years out of that combination. They thus asked ARW to start learning the receiver position when they saw his athleticism on display as part of the scout team making catches against UNC’s defensive backs in practice. Ratliff-Williams accepted this position change without a hint of resistance. He spent his first two years with the program learning to play receiver while learning from future pros like Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer, and Bug Howard before their graduation in the spring of 2017.
ARW took over as UNC’s #1 receiver in 2017 and broke onto the scene in a big way, catching 35 passes for 630 yards and 6 touchdowns on an absolutely dismal offensive team that lacked both stability and talent at the quarterback position. He showed off some versatility by passing for another two touchdowns on trick plays, meaning that he accounted for 8 of UNC’s 21 passing touchdowns on the season. If that wasn’t enough, he also made a mark as one of the best returners in the country. He put up a 26-yard average on kickoff returns and added two touchdowns. He started getting attention from draft people and seemed poised for a big 2018 to really put him on the scene, the quarterback problem hopefully solved with fresh talent.
That, of course, didn’t happen, and we’ve spoken enough here about how the quarterback situation was handled. ARW’s catches and yardage only slightly increased, to 42/689, and he found the end zone just twice. With new kickoff rules in place, his returning came down to Earth as well. He showed the same explosive and tough traits that he had in 2017, along with a better understanding of playing receiver, but he just couldn’t break out in the box score. Following what many considered a disappointing season for him, he declared for the draft.
I listed his college production above, but I’ll summarize here:
Anthony Ratliff-Williams UNC Receiving Stats
The other numbers of interest, of course, is his athletic profile. He was not invited to the Combine and UNC has not, to my knowledge, published full Pro Day measurements as they have sometimes done in the past, so this is all we’ve got:
UNC WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams with some nice numbers at his Pro Day: 4.46 40-yard dash, 14 reps on the bench, and a 35” vertical. One of my fav WR prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s a Day 2 guy for me.— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) March 26, 2019
UNC lists him at 6’1 and 205 pounds, but we have no way of verifying that. What we can say is that the measurements we have from Rob Paul put him put him well above average in speed and hitting the NFL average for bench press and vertical. Anyways, on to the good stuff.
ARW took to the wide receiver position initially, despite little experience, for two reasons: his natural running ability and his strong hands. Not only is Ratliff-Williams a very good straight-line athlete, he has great acceleration, wiggle, balance, and toughness to the way he runs, which make for some jaw-dropping runs after the catch. He looks totally natural as a ball carrier in open space, making him a good screen and short-yardage receiver, as well as an excellent Wildcat quarterback if any NFL team is still doing that in 2019.
Here, he destroys the Pitt defender’s pursuit angle virtually from a standstill with a quick outside juke when the defender is about 6 yards in front of him, and quickly gets 13 yards on an unblocked screen.
I love how he gets this release inside, and then a nice cut to the inside creates quite a good bit of separation. Excellent work by Anthony here. Also, some really nice work after the catch as well to pick up extra yards and extend the play beyond the catch point. pic.twitter.com/l9iAiSyPhL— Chris Robbins (@C_Robbins_) December 23, 2018
And here, he just bullies anybody who comes at him. You don’t see that stiff arm too often, but him bouncing off defenders after he’s established himself as a runner is definitely pretty routine.
As for strong hands...
Anthony Ratliff Williams dealt with some porous QB play last year. He was a contested catch machine pic.twitter.com/wOJWfxtljn— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) April 5, 2019
...Yeah, that’ll translate. What’s really impressive is that ARW showed right away a knack for winning at the catch point, which is a fairly advanced skill for a lot of wide receivers. He came into the position playing bigger than his listed size, which is hard to do.
This isn’t a very good hitch route, as Ratliff-Williams rounds off the top before coming back towards his quarterback. He does do a good job of angling towards the sideline enough so that the linebacker can’t interfere, setting up a one-on-one matchup at the catch point. From there, ARW makes sure to get his body between the DB and the ball and secures the catch with the DB draped over him.
Ratliff-Williams is also a quintessential “football guy,” and while I don’t really put much stock in that as a coaching stock phrase, it shows up in some of the other aspects of his positional transition. He is an aggressive blocker in the run game and when one of his teammates has secured a reception, seemingly taking pride in putting a body on someone. He has a knack for the spectacular, as we see with this 2017 catch that put him on the national scene for the first time:
He did it again in 2018, for the record. This one might have been even harder:
All of these were kind of baseline traits for Ratliff-Williams. But he also had to learn everything else about the position: route running, releases, stacking defensive backs as a vertical receiver, ball tracking, etc. What was he successful at, you may ask?
ARW became a very good ball tracker almost right away. He was used a lot as a deep receiver, so this was imperative. You can see shades of his ability to locate a ball behind him and fight back to it in some of the above clips, but just as impressive has been his ability to adjust to balls in stride.
Ratliff-Williams has a yard on the defender and is streaking upfield, but his quarterback throws slightly behind him and towards the sideline. ARW sees this, slows down, and turns to make the catch facing his quarterback, using his body as a shield from the defender while maintaining balance running backwards.
Here, ARW has gained almost no separation on really good coverage from the defender, but he locates the ball first, turns on an extra gear to close on it, and boxes out the DB while diving to make a spectacular catch. On the next play, he would stack a DB and and get distance from a closing safety to catch and score a 45-yard touchdown to end the half, showing off his deep ball tracking again.
Ratliff-Williams’ biggest improvement in 2018 was his release off the line. His physicality helped with this, as he’s just too powerfully built for college corners to effectively press him, but his footwork and hand usage at the line of scrimmage showed real growth and polish last year.
Ratliff’s go-to inside release is seen here, a shuffle step followed by a jab step outside that leads into his inside break. It’s really effective here, as he gets the corner backpedaling while he turns inside. Bad offensive play design and a noodle-armed throw prevent that win against the DB from turning into a completion, but this is a good example of ARW using his footwork to get open early. I think he actually does better against press coverage than against off coverage because of his physicality and ability to win at the line of scrimmage. He spent most of his time playing outside, though he took a few reps at slot receiver as well, and I think he has a much brighter NFL future as an outside receiver than a slot guy for precisely this reason.
He also has a long-arm outside release that he’s used with seemingly decent results, though it’s hard to really judge it accurately because I don’t think he had an accurate deep ball thrown to him all season, so he had to erase any cushion he might have gained in order to have a chance at catching them.
The Not Good
The big concern with any recent wide receiver convert is route running, and unfortunately, this isn’t a concern that goes away with ARW. While he’s shown the footwork and agility necessary to be a good route runner, and runs a really good route on occasion, usually his route running doesn’t show the urgency you’d like it too. There’s too much rounding off short/intermediate routes in his tape, and when he’s going deep, he doesn’t eat up DBs’ cushion and allows them to stay ahead of the route. There’s a reason almost all his highlights are contested catches, and while he’s really good at them, that’s not sustainable for a professional career. You’ve seen the good (double move vs Duke) and the not great (hitch vs GT), but here’s a play that kind of exemplifies the problem:
ARW wins with an inside release here and immediately has the cornerback on his back for this sluggo route. Instead of sharply stemming after his slant to turn upwards, which would have gotten him real separation, he gently turns and allows the corner to stay on him. This play results in a touchdown, but it’s not a good rep for ARW.
ARW has also had some problems with concentration drops throughout his career. His hands themselves aren’t a problem; you can’t make the kind of catches that he routinely does with suspect hands. And he doesn’t drop the ball in contested situations where he has any hope. He has dropped some easy ones, though, and while drops are generally overrated as an evaluation tool, this is something that his pro coaches are either going to have to live with or coach out of him:
There are a few more like this across Ratliff-Williams’ tape. Not enough to label him a stone-handed receiver or anything, but enough that UNC fans probably remember the disappointing moments fairly well.
It’s a little funny, in an unfortunate way, that the two areas of the position that ARW struggles most with are probably the two things that a lot of football fans will look at to determine wide receivers’ draftability: hands and route running. Those inconsistencies belie what I believe to be a fairly polished skillset in several important aspects, particularly his release, ball tracking, and catch technique: He catches away from his body with his hands in the right place regularly. And the good news is that he’s shown himself to be incredibly coachable and has the skillset to become a good route runner as evidenced by his after-catch and returning ability, where he shows proclivity for stopping on a dime and changing direction. As of now, though, he’s an underdeveloped route runner, and that’s a big deal for an outside receiver. I think he can put it together, but the skills he’s displayed so far won’t put him in position for Day 1 success in the NFL, in my opinion. He needs to go somewhere he can continue to be coached, while providing value as an occasional field stretcher, returner, and gadget player in his first few years in the league. If I were an NFL executive who was confident in my staff’s ability to train wide receivers, say, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, or a few others, I’d find it hard to ignore ARW’s upside at the position. He’s got a history of bailing his quarterback out, it’s just creating easy opportunities for himself that has been his problem, and that’s the kind of thing NFL teams believe they can fix with the right materials. I see him as an ideal early Day 3 candidate, probably worthy of being around the 15th receiver taken in his class.