Jonathan Williams hears what everyone is saying, even if he’s trying his hardest not to listen.
When the Buffalo Bills allowed productive backup running back Mike Gillislee to sign with the New England Patriots as a restricted free agent, it opened up an important job in their backfield. Williams is a logical candidate, but by no means the only one.
With a new coaching staff in place led by Sean McDermott, competition is one of the most frequently heard words at One Bills Drive.
“You know every day I just come out here and try to do my best,” Williams said after practice last week. “I’m learning from one of the best backs in the league in LeSean McCoy. This offensive scheme is a great scheme for any running back, so every day I'm just taking it one day at a time.
“You definitely see that opening, but like I said, I'm trying to take it one day at a time and keep getting better.”
Williams would have to have his head planted firmly in the sand to not recognize the opportunity in front of him. In the Bills’ rush-heavy attack, the No. 2 running back gets plenty of work. That’s not expected to change under new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
McCoy will be 29 at the start of next season and has dealt with a few different injuries during his time in Buffalo, so it would be wise for the team to closely monitor his workload.
“He’s a guy I grew up watching,” Williams said of McCoy. “To see his preparation and the confidence he has on and off the field, it’s definitely a great example for me for the rest of my career.”
The Bills took the decision on whether to match the offer made to Gillislee right up to the deadline, which left Williams in wait-and-see mode.
“I was waiting around just like he was,” he said. “That's one of the guys I was closest with on the team. My locker was right next to him. I hung out with him a lot off the field as well. So I was excited for him, but I was just waiting to see what was going to happen, because this could affect me as well. It is a big opportunity, so it's good for us both.”
Williams’ rookie season was quiet by statistical standards. He played in 11 games and carried 27 times for 94 yards and one touchdown. On 28 touches, he lost a pair of fumbles.
“Just the reps,” he said when asked what the most valuable part of 2016 was. “I wasn't able to play my senior year, missed an entire year, so I came back not only off an injury, but to another level of play. So getting reps, seeing the speed and everything, getting my confidence back, it helped me out a lot. I feel a lot better this year.”
When the Bills chose Williams in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Arkansas, there was talk he could become a steal.
“The draft slot does not match the talent here, but with his injury history, it makes sense,” NFL Network researcher Mark Dulgerian wrote at the time. “With exceptional feet, balance, power, and quickness Williams was among the best RBs in the SEC before sitting out 2015 with a foot injury. This could be a long-term steal if he stays healthy.”
The problem was, Williams wasn’t quite ready to play. He told the Bills’ official website last month that he was still healing when he participated in rookie minicamp.
“What a lot of people don’t know is when I came in here, a month before that I couldn’t work out because of my foot,” he said. “I was sitting at home doing upper body lifts. I couldn’t run or cut. So I just came out here for rookie minicamp and did the best I could do. I’m definitely 100 percent healthy now. I feel really good. I’ve been able to get a really good offseason in. I’m a lot healthier than last year and a lot leaner and excited to go.”
His teammates have taken notice.
“I was talking to Reggie Ragland actually before practice. We played in 2014,” Williams said. “I got in the hot tub and he was like, ‘You're looking like that 2014’ year when you played us, so that felt good.”
Williams ran 20 times for 83 yards and a touchdown in that game, almost leading the Razorbacks to an upset win over the Crimson Tide. He ended that 2014 season with 1,190 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, despite the fact that he shared carries.
If was on the strength of that season that the Bills invested a draft pick in him. If he can duplicate that type of effort in 2017, it will make the decision to let Gillislee walk look wise.