Nothing that happens during football practices in April and May can be seen as a true indicator of what will happen in games in September, but Duke Williams likes where things appear to be headed during offseason drills.
He has been working as a starting strong safety for the Buffalo Bills, filling the spot vacated by Da’Norris Searcy’s free-agency departure to the Tennessee Titans.
Williams also is confident this isn’t a temporary assignment.
“I believe I am going to step in and be that guy,” he said after a recent voluntary veteran minicamp session.
Last season, Williams saw a good deal of playing time at safety, taking roughly 50 percent of the snaps at the position and making four starts. He was credited with 48 tackles, including 34 solo, and made his first interception since joining the Bills as a fourth-round draft pick from Nevada in 2013.
He set a career high with six tackles in the Bills’ Oct. 12 loss against the New England Patriots, and equaled that total in a Dec. 14 victory against the Green Bay Packers.
“Playing 49 to 50 percent of the snaps last year was great for me; I got my feet wet,” Williams said. “Being under Searcy last year, he was a great veteran who taught me a few things.” Former Bills safety “Jarius Byrd, too. Playing under him also was a great experience for me, so I feel like I am ready.”
Coach Rex Ryan isn’t quite ready to co-sign that just yet.
He and the Bills’ defensive coaches are watching Williams and the rest of the defensive backs in practice to determine who would be the best choice to start at safety along with Aaron Williams. One possibility frequently mentioned is moving cornerback Corey Graham to safety, although that hasn’t been the case so far in offseason practices and might not happen at all.
“I think there is going to be competition at that spot,” Ryan said. “We’re not handing it to” Duke Williams, “that it’s set in stone like you can say about Aaron Williams. There will be competition there.
“I think Duke is a guy that has the physical traits you look for. He loves to play and is a tough, physical guy, and he can run. I think those are obviously some main traits you look for. How quickly he processes and things like that, we’ll find out. There’s probably competition in this building and that will be good for Duke and will be good for our football team.”
The Bills didn’t draft a safety, but that doesn’t mean they won’t acquire one between now and the start of training camp. They hosted free agent Dawan Landry, who played safety the last two seasons for the New York Jets while Ryan was their head coach.
“Does that mean we’re going to sign him? There’s nothing definite about that, but we did bring him,” Ryan said. “We kicked the tires, so to speak, and we’ll be prepared if that’s the case. If we think he can help our football team, then we’ll certainly look at that.”
Williams insists the learning part has gone exceptionally well. He feels he’s benefitting greatly from the fact that the defense is similar to the one the Bills employed in 2013, when Mike Pettine, Ryan’s former defensive coordinator with the Jets, ran Buffalo’s defense.
“Guys are really jumping on it fast and learning how to play with each other,” Williams said. “It is fun having the same defense we already learned. It’s not challenging at all. Of course, the terminology is a little different; it’s been adopted from Pettine.
“But Rex has the scheme down pat. Coming from Rex, I’m able to learn way quicker. He’s a players’ coach. He likes to get involved and he wants us to play how we want to and whatever fits us. So if you want to go down and cover, play zone, we have the right to do each one. That’s what’s great about Rex.”
Most of what defensive backs do in Ryan’s defense is play man-to-man coverage. That suits Williams just fine.
He was comfortable with it two years ago as a rookie. He’s even more comfortable with it now, knowing the Bills will be consistently generating strong pressure with their pass rush from one of the more talented defensive fronts in the NFL.
“We’re so blessed to have a defensive front as good as we have here,” Williams said. “Guys here have been here three years with each other, so we’re able to play fast and guys are learning quick. We are able to pick up the defense real quick.”
Williams is known for playing with great emotion. Ryan is known for being as emotional and passionate as any coach in the NFL.
His players appreciate the fact Ryan never discourages them from displaying their emotions on the field. Perhaps no one on the Bills appreciates that more than Williams.
“He brings it every single day in the meeting room,” Williams said of Ryan. “He tells guys to express themselves on the field. He wants us to go out there and have fun. He wants us to work well as a defense, of course. And as long as we’re on the same page, he just wants us to play as free as possible and as comfortable as possible.”
For the time being, Williams’ comfort also comes from feeling he is on the path to becoming the starting strong safety for the Bills.