I was a bit more idealistic with my theories in those days.
It’s not likely that Williams will ever be the player that would have warranted that high of a selection, but that’s more of a reflection of his role than his ability. As a guy who plays strictly in base personnel sets, he just won’t see enough action – a direct effect of the NFL’s current direction toward more multiple receiver looks and the further emphasis being placed on the passing game.
However, judging him solely by his ability to accomplish what was asked of him, Williams certainly measured up well.
Taking it Slowly
When you have a glaring deficiency like the Cardinals did at the nose tackle spot, there could be a temptation to rush your rookie into the starting lineup. So, in some respect, you credit the Cardinals for resisting this urge, opting to use Williams from the bench and even deactivating him when he couldn’t reach his weight target.
In other respects, however, you can’t help but feel they were trying too hard to make a point. The end result being: they kept one of their best players off the field.
The Cardinals’ problems stopping the run started with their defensive line. Their defensive end duo of Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are great when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback, but they’re not so hot against the ground game, and between them, Bryan Robinson was ineffective throughout the year. It got so bad that, by the season’s end, we were often seeing four-man fronts from the Cardinals, using quantity to cure a lack of quality.
If only they trusted their first round pick.
True Nose Tackle
Being honest about Williams, he’s not great at getting up field. He had 149 opportunities to rush the quarterback that resulted in only one hit and two hurries. That’s woeful (though the slightest hair better than Bryan Robinson’s lone QB hit on 151 pass rushes.)
Taking the above and seeing that he earned a cumulative positive grade from us will give a sense of how good he was in run defense. So good, in fact, that he ended with the 11th-highest run-stopping grade of all defensive tackles, and fourth-best among 3-4 nose tackles. Quite remarkable, especially given he only played 387 snaps.
So, just what is it that makes him as impressive as he is in run defense? He has a fantastic ability to beat centers en route to making plays on the ball carrier. That skill earned him 22 defensive stops–only Oakland’s John Henderson finished with more while playing fewer snaps. But it isn’t just the numbers that were impressive, it was also who he was doing it against.
We know Ryan Kalil just finished his second consecutive impressive year, earning the franchise tag and securing his spot on the league’s list of best centers. When Kalil faced Williams, it was Williams that came out on top, beating Carolina’s anchor for four defensive stops and regularly collapsing running lanes on his 34 plays in run defense.
The massive contract Jason Brown received when the Rams lured him from Baltimore is easy to remember. He has slid a bit since, but is not far removed from being one of the top centers in the game. Brown squared off with Williams in Week 13 of this year and couldn’t contain the powerful rookie, letting him get past for four defensive stops on just 18 run plays. Williams also had moments of success against Oakland’s Samson Satele and San Francisco’s David Bass, but veterans like Todd McClure and Casey Wiegmann used their smarts to steer him away from plays.
In a league that has featured a shift towards 3-4 defenses without a real injection of quality nose tackles, the Cardinals should be very happy they’ve landed this talented candidate. His aforementioned weight problem can be overcome and his one-dimensional play can be expanded. With improvement in those areas and continued growth as a force against the run, Williams will not be a secret for long.