With final cuts looming in days, Rex Ryan answered one of the burning questions still facing his Buffalo Bills on Tuesday.
That being, is Duke Williams on the roster bubble?
“I think he’s got a 99 percent chance of making this team,” Ryan said. “The guy is a tremendous special teams player and is a good player on defense.”
That’s the good news for Williams, a third-year safety out of Nevada. The bad news is he’s gone from what was expected to be a fierce competition with Corey Graham for a starting job at safety to wondering if his spot on the 53-man roster is indeed in jeopardy.
“I’m not frustrated at all because I know what I can do and I know how good of a football player I am,” Williams said after the Bills’ practice Tuesday. “Whatever role I have, I’m going to fill it to the best of my ability. That’s what I’m worried about, instead of who’s on the field first. It’s important to some guys. Of course I want to be a starter, of course I feel like I worked for it, but with Corey being the starter, I’m going to back him up and help us win games.”
Williams started four games in 2014, making 52 tackles, three passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a forced fumble in playing 49 percent of the defensive snaps. It would only be natural for him, then, to anticipate an expanded role, especially after the player he split time with, Da’Norris Searcy, was allowed to leave as a free agent.
“It’s tough when you expect to be the guy and you’ve proven it,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to live with it and still play your game, still make this team better any way I can.”
Asked whether he felt like he got a fair shot at the starting job, Williams said, “it’s up to the coaches. Whatever their decision is, that’s it. I can’t really give you an answer to that. It’s the way the game goes. I’m excited about the season. I’m excited to be a part of it, so that’s what’s important.”
Williams has good reason to be optimistic about the possibilities this season even if he’s not a starter. Ryan’s defensive scheme frequently will use five or even six defensive backs. That means playing time will be there for whoever steps up and takes it from a group that includes Williams, Jonathan Meeks and Bacarri Rambo.
“As far as the competition goes, coaches, they’ve got their guys. Me, Rambo and Meeks are going to rotate in and help out when needed,” Williams said. “Develop our roles on the defense as the swing guys. … There’s going to be a lot of rotation. I feel like guys are going to get similar playing time and a chance to make plays for this defense, so I’m real confident about my role.”
There is also the possibility that Graham – whom Ryan on Tuesday called an “exceptional football player” – could be asked to move back to cornerback in a pinch. Veteran Leodis McKelvin isn’t expected to be ready for the season opener, meaning rookie Ronald Darby is scheduled to start.
Darby, however, has struggled at times in the preseason games. Additionally, No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore is currently nursing a shoulder injury.
“You want to see leaders on the field. Corey being a veteran, he gets guys lined up and he knows the game,” Williams said. “Learning from Corey, being able to be a swing guy … we help each other. Whoever starts out of the gate, that’s not the important thing. It’s making plays to help win football games. That’s the important thing and that’s what I’m worried about.”
With Ryan planning to sit as many of his starters as possible during Thursday’s preseason finale at Detroit, Williams will likely get ample playing time to show the coaching staff just how he can help this defense this season.
“I’ve been working pretty hard this offseason on things I need to get better at,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to get better as a player throughout the year. I know I’m going to make a lot of plays to help this team get to where we want to go.”