Secret Superstars: Cleveland Browns
With the eighth overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns opted to draft Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Gilbert struggled in the first three weeks of the season, before flashing some quality later, but overall it was a largely underwhelming rookie season, with injuries causing frustration and holding him back at times.
After the draft, if you had said that a rookie would be the Browns highest graded cornerback, few would have agreed with you, so imagine the surprise when not only did that happen, but it wasn’t the eight overall selection in the draft, or their fourth round pick Pierre Desir either. Instead, it was K’Waun Williams, an undrafted rookie out of Pittsburgh.
Williams wasn’t highly regarded coming out of Pittsburgh, and it didn’t seem to surprise anyone that he went undrafted. His 40 yard dash time at his pro day was a modest 4.53, but perhaps at 5-foot-9 teams felt like he needed to be faster. What’s amazing given how good he looked as a rookie, is that not only did Williams not get drafted, he wasn’t even offered a contract as an undrafted free agent straight away. Instead he was offered a tryout by both the Steelers and the Browns. Given that the Browns had drafted two cornerbacks in the top four rounds, it was a bold decision, but he hasn’t lived to regret it so far.
After earning a contract at that tryout, Williams went on to impress the team throughout OTA’s and training camp, but even at this point he was surely a long shot to make a roster on a team that had drafted Gilbert and Desir. He played just 42 snaps on defense in the preseason and, while he only gave up two receptions, he struggled somewhat in the first game against the Detroit Lions. Both receptions he gave up went for first downs, and he also committed a penalty. Still, when the preseason was over, there he was, still on the roster, and still getting snaps on defense.
He played just 18 snaps in the first four weeks of the season, but found himself playing more than half of the team’s defensive snaps on the road against the Tennessee Titans in Week 5. Seizing the opportunity, Williams may have given up seven receptions, but they went for just 50 yards, with three of them catches that would be short of first-down yardage on third downs, while he had some involvement in all three incompletions. He really impressed late in the fourth quarter of a close game, though, with five important plays in the final five minutes of the game.
Firstly, on 2nd-and-10 with 4:50 remaining, and the Browns down by six, he was able to get in front of the out route to Nate Washington, getting his hands on the ball for a pass breakup. Four plays later he gave up the reception on another out route, this time to Delaine Walker, but was able to get enough of a shove on him that, after the Browns challenged, saw Walker come up short of the third down.
After the Browns got the ball back and took the lead, he kept close coverage on Nate Washington on an incompletion downfield on 1st-and-10 with 1:09 remaining. Four plays later, on 1st-and-10 again, this time with just 24 seconds remaining, he burst forward at the snap, picking up the unblocked sack on Charlie Whitehurst. Finally, on the game’s last play, he made sure to tackle wide receiver Kendall Wright in bounds, despite giving up the first down, ending the game and sealing the win for the Browns.
Those are the plays that made Williams a big factor for the Browns’ secondary throughout the rest of 2014 and going forward. He finished 2014 with the sixth-highest coverage grade of all cornerbacks, despite playing less than 400 snaps. He allowed 1.06 Yards Per Coverage Snap, which was only tied for 29th in the league, so there is some room for improvement there, with similar room for improvement from the slot, where his 1.10 YPCS was tied for 24th.
As always, the concern with a player like Williams is the limited sample size but, from what we’ve seen, he has a very bright future ahead of him. In today’s NFL, with the focus on passing, a third cornerback is essentially a starter anyway, but with the addition of Tramon Williams opposite Joe Haden, it looks like Williams will be battling with both Gilbert and Desir for that role.
If he can play like he did as a rookie, and avoid injuries like the two concussions he suffered, then he should be in a good position to do just that. He faced an uphill battle to even make the roster a year ago, so competing for something in training camp won’t be a surprise to him, but this year he’s out to prove he belongs as a key part of a Browns secondary that looks like the best unit on the roster.
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