This is the fourth in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Defensive tackles.
News Sports Reporter
When Leonard Williams was in middle school, he weighed 210 pounds.
“Too heavy to play” was what organizers of his local Pop Warner football league in Florida told him. Knowing he was never going to drop the 30 pounds necessary to meet the weight limit, Williams sadly put his football-playing dreams aside until high school.
“But my dad told me my size was going to pay off one day,” he said.
That day has arrived.
After a sterling career as a defensive lineman at USC, Williams finds himself as arguably the most talented player in this year’s NFL Draft. More than a few analysts believe, as Williams does, that he should be the top overall pick. However, that distinction is expected to go to a quarterback, either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, because that is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ primary need.
The Tennessee Titans could choose Williams at No. 2, but are also in the market for a QB, leaving Williams to likely be taken at No. 3.
Still, a case could be made that Williams would be the safest No. 1 pick, because he figures to have the best chance of being immediately productive and having a long, successful NFL career. Not only did he generate impressive numbers for the Trojans (80 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles last season), but he also showed tremendous versatility.
Williams proved to be effective as an end and a tackle, and USC used him at both positions.
“One guy I look at a lot is JJ Watt,” Williams said when asked of an NFL player after whom he patterns his game during the NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis. “He’s been one of the best defensive players in the league for the last few years and he’s very versatile like I see myself. When I see the film, I see how the coaches try to make mismatches for him like they do for me at USC. I try to pattern myself after a lot of things he does.”
Williams – nicknamed “Big Cat” because of his 6-foot-5, 302-pound frame and thick hair that looks like a lion’s mane – couldn’t choose a better gold standard than the Houston Texans’ standout defensive lineman.
And when talent evaluators watch Williams, the similarities are readily apparent.
“When you have watched him over two years and you’ve studied him, the guy can do anything you want him to do,” former NFL scout and NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “You want him to play upfield, he can do that. If you want, he can dominate” inside. “He’s outstanding with his hands, so to me, he’s as advertised at the very top.”
It wasn’t the easiest of climbs. After being shut out of Pop Warner, Williams turned to rugby, which he credits for teaching him about physicality before he played football.
His football skills remained raw through high school and his early days at USC, but were strong enough for him to earn a starting job as a freshman. Williams will never forget the inspiring words he heard from then-Trojans interim coach Ed Orgeron.
“He was telling me, ‘You’re one of the best players I ever coached,’ ” Williams said. “Hearing that from a legend coach like that, that’s when I started knowing I could be one of the best D-linemen if I could put my mind to it.”
Williams heads a class of defensive tackles that is solid enough to likely have four and possibly five selected in the first round.
“It’s a good class of tackles and they vary from different defensive schemes,” said Kelvin Fisher, the Bills’ director of college scouting. “You have guys who play in a 3-4, you have guys who play in a 4-3. You have guys who can play in both and you have some guys who can’t, but it’s a good class of defensive tackles.”
After Williams, other defensive tackles who figure to be chosen in the first round are Washington’s Danny Shelton, Oregon’s Arik Armstead (who played end in college and is classified as such by some draft analysts), and Texas’ Malcom Brown. Another possibility is Florida State’s Eddie Goldman.
This is what the Pro Football Now Draft Guide has to say about Shelton: “Prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who has the quickness and pass-rush ability to play in a 4-3. Rushes the passer better than most interior defensive linemen. A competitive, tough and strong inside lineman who will play and contribute very quickly.”
Nevertheless, versatility describes more of the higher-ranked players in this year’s defensive tackle class.
“Malcom Brown can two-gap, he can penetrate, and to me that versatility is one of the reasons why I have him up there, because those guys are hard to find,” Jeremiah said. “Malcom Brown and Arik Armstead are” outside of Williams “the two guys I think that can give you a little bit of both. And I put Eddie Goldman a little bit behind them because with Eddie you’re getting a true two-gap guy. You’re getting somebody who can sit and clog, but you lose some of that upfield ability.”
Next: Tight ends.