Offseason practices in the NFL are heavy on simulation. Yes, there's actual throwing and catching, running and cutting, but bodies aren't slamming against each other as they do when pads are on. Each session takes on the look and feel of a pure dress rehearsal. It's all about learning about taking the right steps, being in proper position, carrying out assignments correctly.
At Tuesday's start of mandatory minicamp workouts, the simulation reached an even higher level for Jonathan Williams.
For now, he represents the top candidate to be the Buffalo Bills' No. 2 running back behind LeSean McCoy. Tuesday, McCoy was unable to practice because of what coach Sean McDermott described as a stomach virus. Williams fully grasped that he was put in the situation that could very well arise with little or no warning.
"This is something that can happen during the season," he told reporters. "You never know with the running back position, how physical it is. It could be an injury, or it could be an illness, or something like that and the guys have to step up.
"So this was an opportunity for me to get used to having to do that one day, one game."
The Bills' preference would be for that day to not come, because they want McCoy, their best player and one of the top backs in the league, to be available for every snap. But that isn't realistic, given that McCoy, who turns 29 next month, has missed five games due to injury in the past two seasons -- four in 2015, his first year with the Bills, and one last year. He also will get periodic breaks, and fresh legs will take over.
The Bills had an exceptional backup in Mike Gillislee, but he joined the New England Patriots in the offseason as a restricted free agent. His loss is a concern, mainly because of how well he ran and his penchant for getting into the end zone; he had nine last season, eight rushing. However, there's also uncertainty over Gillislee's replacement.
After joining the Bills as a fifth-round draft pick from Arkansas last year, Williams ran 27 times for 94 yards and a touchdown in 11 games. He made only one catch for no yards. Williams arrived with limited experience, having missed his final season in college with a foot injury.
The Bills' new decision-makers could have done something to find their own replacement for Gillislee. For now, they're sticking with him, and seem pleased with what he has shown during non-contact workouts.
"Jonathan Williams has done a nice job and he’s taken advantage of the opportunities that he’s been given, and that’s the important part of this," McDermott said. "He’s a second-year player and his development will be key to our success here moving forward. You look at the talent that he has – the skill set and his ability to run no different than college. I mean, that’s the part that’s really hard to evaluate right now because of what goes on in front of him, with the offensive line and defensive line this time of year.
"That said, we’re looking at assignment football and that he knows the playbook – and he’s done a nice job with that – and then ball security (he lost two fumbles while rushing as a rookie). We’re not here to turn the ball over. We’re here to secure the football and score points, and at the end of the day, that speaks to respecting the football on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to take it away on defense and we must protect it on offense, and special teams factors into that as well, so he’s done a nice job with that so far."
The Bills and Williams received additional good news last week when the running back was found not guilty on two misdemeanor charges relating to an arrest in 2016 for allegedly driving while intoxicated.
"It’s definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders," Williams said. "It’s something I’ve definitely learned from, and I’m happy to put that in the past and just focus on my football team and my teammates, and try to win games next year."
For Williams, being a rookie in the NFL last year was more important than simply adjusting to the faster pace of the highest level of football. After missing that final season with the Razorbacks, he also need to reacquaint himself with the speed and physicality of the game, period.
"(I’m) trying to listen to plays again and everything, get caught back up on that," Williams said. "I had a year to adjust and learn from a lot of good guys in that locker room."
He considers McCoy, who returned to practice Wednesday, to be his best teacher. Williams studies not only the way McCoy performs as a runner, but also as a receiver.
"He’s a playmaker, he’s not just a running back," Williams said. "He can run the ball in between the tackles, outside. He can line up outside and threaten the defense there. It’s just about matchups, how can you create a matchup, and if I can flex outside and run a route and catch the ball on third down, and things like that, that’ll just help the team out."
Williams says he is keenly aware of the importance of protecting the ball. It's something he makes a point of addressing before and after each practice.
"And mentally, every rep, whenever I hear the play call, if it’s a run play or even if it’s a pass play that I feel I can get the ball on, in my head (he says), 'Make sure (of) ball security, high and tight,'" Williams said. "If I get in traffic, two hands on it because that’s everybody’s money out there. It affects everybody, not just the offense or me, but the defense as well with ball position and things like that.
"It’s definitely important, and I’ve definitely been making a conscience effort on working on it."