May 01, 2015 - Jeff Fedotin
Did the Jets get a steal in Leonard Williams?
CHICAGO—Before stepping to the podium, Leonard Williams audibly exhaled. Such a reaction was understandable, considering he had slipped to the sixth overall pick, even though most had pegged the 6-5, 302-pounder as the best defensive player — and perhaps the best player overall — in the 2015 NFL Draft. “It’s like a sigh of relief,” Williams said. “I had high expectations for myself, and seeing myself fall was kind of disappointing.” The Jets didn’t expect him to be available at No. 6 either. Williams had visited the Jets and was told he’d be one of their main targets if he was there, something they didn’t figure to be the case. Rumor has it that a shoulder injury caused the defensive lineman, who had 21 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss during his three years at USC, to slide in the first round. Williams had surgery following his sophomore season to repair a torn labrum and after workouts he still does extra stabilization exercises to keep his shoulder strong. After missing spring workouts, however, he returned from injury to have seven sacks and 80 tackles during an impressive junior campaign where he started 13 games. “I played the whole 2014 season with no problems,” Williams said. “I don’t know why that would have been a factor, so I don’t really believe in that rumor.” Whether that shoulder rumor led to him falling to the Jets, it meant he landed on a team that had already possessed a strong defense. New York had the sixth-ranked defense last year and added cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who both starred for the team previously, during the offseason. “I’m glad to go into a defense that’s already well-seasoned up front,” Williams said. “They have a great D-line already.” That line is led by stout defensive ends Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. In addition to stopping the run, the latter has 16.5 sacks the last two years, a very high total for a 3-4 end. Following the Jets’ selection of Williams, Wilkerson welcomed him to the club via Instagram. “That means a lot to me,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to working with those guys.” Wilkerson, though, could be on his way out. Thee fifth-year player is in the final year of his deal and has skipped voluntary workouts. New York even reportedly listened to trade offers for him prior to the draft. Williams, who looks very lean in person, is athletic, having run a 4.94 40, and versatile, which allows him play either the three- or five-technique under new head coach Todd Bowles. But he said the Jets told him he would play as a 3-4 defensive end, perhaps making Wilkerson the odd man out. Bowles, a Bill Parcells disciple, orchestrated the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense last year and likely will not employ four defensive linemen in his base defense. Williams instantly bonded with his new coach, who he described as a players’ coach, during their visit. Bowles kidded him, saying he would critique his draft attire. “We were joking around,” Williams said. “I felt comfortable around him.” The 20-year-old, who has outside interests including ceramics, should also be a good fit in New York as he crosses coasts to plays on the biggest stage. “I kind of do well being in big cities,” Williams said. The Big Apple will take to Williams if he can help the Jets bridge the gap in the division, which includes their longtime nemesis and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots led by Tom Brady. “I know it’s a big rivalry,” he said. “I’m looking forward to tackling a great quarterback like that. I hope that’s the first sack of my career.” The Jets could make the going tough for opposing offenses in the AFC East. They currently have three defensive lineman (Richardson, Wilkerson and Williams) who were first-round picks, and none is older than 25. The issue is that by loading up on D-line, the Jets have neglected their offense, which currently looks like it will be quarterbacked by Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick and lacks many weapons beside Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. New general manager Mike Maccagnan must spend Friday and Saturday improving that part of his team. He used his Thursday to phone Williams, a call that really surprised the All-Pac 12 player. It was not only shock for the soon-to-be rookie, but it also provided motivation. He vowed to remember the five teams who passed on him. “I’m looking forward to proving those people wrong,” Williams said, “and most of all proving the Jets right.” Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin