Coming out of the 2019 NFL Draft class, there were few plug-and-play prospects that were more “guaranteed” than Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams. Even before the draft, no matter what team was drafting him, there was a good chance Williams was going to be ready to play right away (whether the depth chart allowed for it or not).
For Williams, it appeared team destination would be the only thing in the way of an early starting spot. Once he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, that roadblock was out the window, and Williams had a fast track to early playing time.
Unfortunately, that fast track went under construction way too early, as Williams had to have surgery on his shoulder to repair a torn labrum in the summer of his rookie season. It was an injury Williams suffered during OTAs with the Bengals, and the recovery process kept him out the entire season.
So what can we expect from Williams in what will be not technically his rookie year but his first season as a pro? For a baseline of expectations, we should look back on Williams’ scouting reports.
Prior to the 2019 NFL Draft, this is what TDN draft analyst Kyle Crabbs said to summarize Williams’ abilities.
“Jonah Williams is a technically refined offensive tackle who projects most favorably into a physical offensive front,” Crabbs said. “Williams' pass protection skills would be best utilized in quicker passing schemes to protect his lack of length from being exposed on deeper pass sets, but that's no reason to dismiss his skills as an offensive tackle and move inside to guard. Should be a rookie starter at the NFL level and provide quality play on the outside by the end of his first year.”
That is what Crabbs said of Williams in a vacuum—not knowing what team he would play for or what kind of a situation or blocking scheme he would be asked to learn and lead.
As for the Bengals fit itself, TDN draft analyst Benjamin Solak wrote how important Williams will be to Cincinnati’s progression.
“The Bengals offensive line was bad last year, preventing Zac Taylor from running zone concepts with much success while limiting the Bengals' ability to generate a deep passing game,” Solak said. “Their biggest opportunity for immediate Year 1 improvement rests in the hands of Williams, who was desirable as a prospect because of his high-floor and pro readiness. Williams was completely lost for the season with a torn labrum, but was slated to start at left tackle and is so again. If he can translate to the NFL right away, it will pay huge dividends to the Bengals' pass-protection in 2020 and beyond.”
Though it is a year after Solak’s projection, and even with the additions to the Bengals offensive line such as Fred Johnson, Isaiah Prince, and Hakeem Adeniji, Williams is the most promising. Cincinnati’s offensive line was, well, not great in 2019. Pro Football Focus ranked them 30th in the league, as a unit. Williams has a chance to help turn that around in a big way as a projected left tackle.
As for what the Bengals are expecting from their second-year player but first-year contributor, Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor said Williams has been preparing to be a starter since last season—and continuing that work now.
“We’re getting a healthy player who’s in the right state of mind mentally,” Taylor said. “He’s ready to help us at left tackle, and we’re excited about the prospect of getting Jonah – not the prospect—we’re glad to get Jonah back on the field and get him ready to go, whenever that time comes. But he’s healthy, he’s ready to go. I know he’s excited.”
But the stakes are even higher in 2020 for Williams than they were in 2019. Now, the Bengals have their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow that Williams will be in charge of protecting. It will be a risk—first-year left tackle protecting a first-year quarterback—but while it will take time for both, the Bengals are certainly hoping it is the beginning of an offensive pairing that defines success for them for the next decade.