By most measurements, Kyle Williams wasn't supposed to make it this far.
His size was a problem for NFL scouts. LSU listed him at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds. Colleges have a tendency to exaggerate those numbers, evidenced by the fact Williams lost an inch when he turned pro. Safe bet his weight was inflated, too.
Williams started for LSU's 2003 national championship team as a sophomore, was All-SEC and second-team All-America yet slid to the fifth round in the 2006 draft.
"Not strong at the point and driven off the ball by opponents. Marginal skills as a pass rusher," read Williams' pre-draft report on Scout.com.
"May never be a starter at the next level yet his tenacity and approach to the game will find him a spot on an NFL roster."
Eleven seasons later, the four-time Pro Bowl selection still is dominating Buffalo Bills opponents along the defensive line.
Williams has 3.5 sacks and ranks second on the Bills with eight tackles for losses entering Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at New Era Field.
"Kyle Williams is playing unbelievable," Bills coach Rex Ryan recently gushed.
Williams hasn't experienced the postseason, but he already is among the Bills' greatest draft choices and is their best late-round find. Sunday will be his 147th game. He became a starter six games into his rookie season and hasn't been a backup since.
No Bills player drafted beyond the fourth round has more starts. Among Bills drafted so late, he is third in games behind seventh-round pick Mark Pike's 173 and 12th-round pick Charles Romes' 151. Kent Hull, the only undrafted Bills position player with more experience, started all but one of his 170 games.
Going back to 1985, when William Perry exploded on the scene and made obese interior linemen acceptable, few defensive tackles have played as long and as sveltely as Williams.
Jonathan Babineaux, at 300 pounds and in his 12th season with the Atlanta Falcons, is the only active defensive lineman under Williams' 303 pounds with more experience. But Babineaux hasn't been to a Pro Bowl and mostly has been a backup the past two seasons.
More impressive yet, and further proof Williams is a player who defies categories, is he can crush any position along the line. He's a former high school fullback who has lined up in Buffalo's goal-line offense. He's a scratch golfer who could shoot under par and drive the ball 300 yards in college.
His name likely will be added to the Bills Wall of Fame.
Wednesday in the Bills' locker room, I met with Williams to talk about his career, how he has made it this far and what's to come.
Now that you've been in the NFL 11 years and made four Pro Bowl rosters, how do you compute being considered too small to be drafted earlier coming out of LSU in 2006?
Yeah, I made All-SEC a couple times, All-American my senior year. The funny thing is it never really bothered me I wasn't considered a prototypical this or wasn't supposed to be able to do that. The way I viewed it was, "These guys I'm playing against are going to be a lot of the guys I see playing on Sunday. Everything is supposed to change because their jersey changes or they go to a different league?" I didn't understand that.
My agent and I figured I would be the ninth or 10th defensive tackle picked. I was around there. [Williams was the 10th taken; Haloti Ngata, taken 12th overall, is the only other Pro Bowl defensive tackle from that draft class.] We went where I expected at my position, but it just ended up being pushed back in the draft.
What caused you to have that kind perspective, to shrug your shoulders at the criticisms?
I played for an old-school football coach in high school, Tommy Reeder [in Ruston, La.], that was all about doing your best, preparing your best and competing every time you had the opportunity to do it. Then I played for Nick Saban in college for three years. He's a very process-oriented guy. My formative years of football were under guys that wanted you to worry only about what you can control, doing your best, competing. My last year was with Les Miles my senior year.
So I really didn't much care what anybody's opinion was about whether I could or couldn't play because nobody else knew. "All right, well, his arms are an inch and a half short." There's a lot more involved in this game you can't measure than what you can. That's what makes players great. What gives guys longevity are the things they can't put their finger on or put their stopwatch to.
A lot of talented high school or college players don't progress because they're not surrounded with that sort of guidance. How blessed do you consider yourself to be around that wisdom?
When talented guys get tripped up along the way, some of it is not having the right people, right structure, right direction. And some of it is people not taking advantage to be with mentors like that, not being willing to go the extra mile or get with the program or accept what people are saying.
It's twofold. I was really lucky to have been put into a situation like that, and I also was willing to buy in and go down that road to say, "You know what? I'm going to work as hard as I can today, and then I'm going get up tomorrow and do it again." Then I woke up three years later as a senior in high school with tons of scholarship offers. Then I was able to go play in college, and it was the same thing, approaching it as, "Every day I have a chance to get better and compete and better myself and do my best." Then I woke up four years later, and they're talking about the NFL. Then I got to Buffalo. I was happy to be here, happy to have an opportunity to compete. Same process. Now it's 11 years later.
I would put you in the category of an overachiever, in that you've produced way more than expected of a fifth-round draft pick. What do you ...
You know, you can label a guy an overachiever because other people's expectations of them weren't that high. I had great expectations of myself. I always felt hard work, being tough, competing, doing your best would pay off.
Absolutely. But what I was going to say about being "an overachiever" – you can say the same for guys like Fred Jackson and Wes Welker and whomever – there seems to be a common thread in that they take a micro approach to their futures. They just want to get better and advance to the next phase. Then once they advance they want to get better and advance some more. Eventually, they've eclipsed whatever shortcomings were perceived.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I wanted to win everything, and I'm not talking about playing football. I'm talking about running tests and drills and lifting weights. I wanted to win those things. When I played, I obviously wanted to win the game, but I wanted to win everything that led up to the game so the game would be that much easier. I wanted to win all my blocks. I wanted to play perfectly. I wanted to practice hard and at full speed so my body would know how to react on Friday or Saturday or, now, Sunday.
Part of the reason fans love you is that you don't fit a mold. You're not as big as Vince Wilfork in Houston, but you're fast and can play any position up and down the defensive line. How have you maintained your athleticism while maximizing the size it takes to play in the NFL?
I've never been told that I had to gain weight or lose weight. If the prototype is 275, but this guy's at 240 and he's doing the job well, why would you mess with it?
Coaches mess with it all the time. Scouts evaluate players on it all the time.
Sure, but I don't understand that. If a guy is 240 pounds and rolling out there and getting knocked off the ball and getting moved around, that's another thing. But look at a guy like Aaron Donald. What's he weigh, 280, 285? [The Rams list Donald at 6-1, 285.] You better not mess with his formula.
I don't know. I've always kind of been the size I am, give or take four or five pounds. That's what I am. I'm not going to be able to be 320. I don't lose much. I've always hovered around the 300 mark, maybe a little under. It's fit me fine, and my play has been what it is at that weight forever.
What do you consider your natural position?
I feel like I can do anything, you know? I feel like I can do it well. Obviously, in Rex's defense I'm asked to wear a lot of hats and do a lot of different things, moving around and really having some input in what's going on and what we're doing. That's a lot of fun.
I would say I'm probably most comfortable playing the three-technique, somewhere over the guard, just because I've done that the most through college and coming in here. My first three years actually in the league I played nose guard. We were in that Tampa 2 defense, and when we got into third-down or sub packages, we put four D-ends on the field. So I really never got the opportunity to rush and be a penetrator until about midway through my third year or maybe my fourth year in the league.
When we signed Marcus Stroud [acquired in a 2008 trade that sent third- and fifth-round draft choices to Jacksonville], he didn't want to play the three-technique all the time or the shade all the time. He wanted to play left defensive tackle, so I played the right. So sometimes I played two-technique and sometimes I played three, where I got a chance to play through guys and penetrate into the backfield. That's when they first got a glimpse of, "Oh, we really like the way you do that. Maybe we want you to do that as much as you can."
I've been able to move around to both sides, play end, make some drops and stuff. I still have the ability to play nose. I'm a Swiss Army knife, which is fun. And there's a point of pride in that you can line me up anywhere, and my teammates know I can get the job done there for our defense.
Shouldn't NFL teams have been able to project what you could offer a defense?
I've never really carried a grudge. People talk about a chip on your shoulder because of this or because of that. I never really have because it didn't mean much to me. There's a line of thinking "Because you're picked here, that means the percentages are small that you're supposed to be good." That didn't mean anything to me. The opinion of a prognosticator about what my career was going to look like didn't mean anything because at that time I'm not one day into it.
Not just prognosticators. NFL general managers passed on you over and over.
Yeah, everybody. But it didn't matter to me because when the rubber meets the road, the only thing that matters is what happens out on the field, and I'm totally comfortable out there.
Now, if you want to put me in some tights and want to watch me stretch ... But put me on the field, and I know what I can do.
How would you describe your evolution as a football player over 11 NFL seasons?
It's hard for me to answer that. My positions have changed and my coaches have changed, but I think my process and the way I've carried myself day to day has been the same since I got here. I guess I don't see a big evolution or coming of age just because I'm such a creature of habit and of repetition. I don't notice a blooming difference.
During the 2010 season, you became a darling among football analytics people. A ProFootballFocus.com analyst graded you the third-best player in the league that year behind only Aaron Rodgers and Justin Smith. So that put you ahead of Tom Brady and ...
I don't even know what that means, to be honest with you. How do they know how to grade me if they don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing?
You're asking the wrong guy.
If you don't know what my assignment is or what the O-line's trying to do, I mean ... Good Lord, especially in this defense. I don't know how anybody would know how to begin to grade this defense if they didn't know exactly what our job is on a certain play. We have some interesting jobs in this defense that I've never been asked to do in other ones. So to grade that on some kind of scale? I don't know how they could do that.
I have a similar feeling about those who use the All-22 film to ...
That's what you would call "coaches film," shot from the end zone and shows everything. The league makes it available for fans and the media through NFL Game Pass.
So they get on their iPad and grade us?
Well, theoretically. How long did it take you to learn how to watch film?
I felt like we had a pretty good base at LSU. We had a good defensive line coach that taught us. [Former Bills defensive line coach Karl Dunbar was LSU's defensive line assistant for Williams' senior season.] He played in the NFL a few years.
But I will say my preparation there has evolved. Yeah, you look at formations. But I look at I don't know how many different things. I have bullet points. I look at every player. I look at down-and-distance. O-linemen in general have a propensity to tip what they're doing. Is it his feet? Is it his hands? If I pick up on one, I will look at play after play after play. If that checks out, now I have a tendency. Now I can go into formations and down-and-distance. "Boom, yep!" And it goes from there.
I try to share what I see with the other guys or teach guys what to look for. Not all guys are going to take and use it. Not all guys are going to want to spend that much time on it. But I enjoy the process of breaking down tendencies. I enjoy coming in on Wednesdays, when we go over the coaches' breakdowns on tendencies and formations to learn, when I get in there, how much of this stuff do I already know? I enjoy stuff like that.
When you talk about enjoying the details of preparation, you sound like someone who would have a passion for coaching or evaluation. What are your thoughts on coaching or working in a front office once you retire?
To dodge your question in the best way I can ... We talked about my process and the way that I conduct myself is that I don't get that far ahead of myself. I feel I've got plenty of football left to play. So I'm going to do this the best I can every day, every game, every year. Then I'll worry about what's next.
[Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, still in his red practice jersey and shoulder pads, squeezes past Williams to slide a plate of lunch in the microwave.]
What do you think Tyrod? Would you want Kyle to coach your kids?
Taylor: Well, sure. Definitely. I'd send my son over to ... Oh, wait. You're recording this?
Would your answer change if I weren't?
Taylor, laughing: I'd want him to coach my son.
Williams: I wouldn't send your son to my place. You've seen how my three sons act? You wouldn't want yours coming home, acting like that.
That leads me to another big-picture question. With everything we continue to learn about how brutal football can be, what are your thoughts on letting your sons play?
My sons are more than welcome to play football. I'll elaborate on that. Here's my thing: I'm 100 percent certain you're going to die, and I'm going to die. It's going to happen. Nothing you can do about it. What this game can teach you character-wise, toughness-wise, black guys leading white guys, white guys leading black guys, different religions coming together, just the things you can learn are far more valuable to your life than, OK, I may have torn my foot up.
What about all these brain studies, though?
We would have to come out with some more conclusive, long-term studies of when this really happens.
Does it scare you as a dad?
Listen, you can't borrow worry or ...
Yeah, borrow worry.
I don't know that saying.
It's my mother-in-law's saying, actually. I just stole it. It means I can't worry about something that may or may not happen in the future. So I'm not going to worry about it now.
There's so much more to be learned about life lessons – I'm not just talking about football – by playing. And, of course, football doesn't have the only lease on that. Team sports in general are great for that.
If you could be NFL commissioner long enough to make one change, what would it be?
I would review our fine system and how our scale of fines are levied out. A guy who does something that's not malicious gets a $25,000 fine, same as a guy that yanks a player down by the facemask. I don't understand that completely. I don't see how all that measures up. That's a big thing.
All right. Get greedy. What else would you change?
I don't like Thursday night games. I don't think anybody does. Do away with those. The quality of football is no good. You put people at risk physically by playing two games in five days.
Just because you're trying to grab a share of the market on a different day of the week ... You're already on Sunday and Monday. To go after Thursday, it's just not good for the players, and it's not a good brand of football on Thursday nights.
I know you don't like to look into the future, but what would it mean to be on the Bills Wall of Fame someday?
I would say my career has gone pretty good so far, but I got some left. So maybe we'll keep climbing, and we'll win some games and then see what it looks like.
The guys that are all up on that wall are great players, storied people in this franchise. If that's something that happens in the future, that would be a great honor. I've had just as much fun and it's been such an honor to play for these fans.
But going back to my standard answer – to aggravate you – I'm not done yet. I get asked what I'll do when I'm done playing, not just by you, but by other people all the time. I say, "What are trying to do? Get rid of me? Trying to make me retire?"
I still feel like I'm playing pretty good. So I'm not ready to even peek over that fence yet. I got too much left to do.
Story topics: Aaron Donald/ Aaron Rodgers/ Charles Romes/ fred jackson/ Haloti Ngata/ Jonathan Babineaux/ Justin Smith/ Karl Dunbar/ Kent Hull/ Kyle Williams/ Les Miles/ Marcus Stroud/ Mark Pike/ Nick Saban/ Rex Ryan/ roger goodell/ tom brady/ Tommy Reeder/ Tyrod Taylor/ Vince Wilfork/ Wes Welker/ William Perry