What's Behind Quinnen Williams' Dominant Sophomore Season?

Photo: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Quinnen Williams has always had a goofy vibe. At the NFL draft, he famously sneezed, blessed himself, and then thanked himself on national television; he said he was excited to “play with himself” when asked about his rookie rating in Madden. The braces he wore for his rookie season had veterans asking him just how old he was when he first got into the league.

In fact, Williams entered the league at 21, a one-year starter for the Crimson Tide who declared after a dominant redshirt sophomore season: the Outland Trophy winner, a unanimous First-Team All-American, the driving force behind yet another dominant Alabama defense. Williams was nowhere to be found on preseason big boards by draft analysts everywhere, with Houston iDL Ed Oliver considered the star player at the position—by November, he had not only taken Oliver’s spot, but he was in the conversation for Nick Bosa’s crown as the best defensive player in the class.

It was close—there were rumors the Arizona Cardinals were considering him at No. 1 overall—but Williams ended up being the third pick of the draft, selected by the New York Jets after Kyler Murray and Bosa. Murray wound up being the Offensive Rookie of the Year; Bosa, the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Williams? He had six QB hits in 13 games.

So not as good.

It was, as always, too early to call the player a bust—that didn’t stop folks from doing it. Despite the fact that Williams missed some OTA reps with a calf injury, and then games at the beginning of the season with an ankle injury; despite the fact that he was only 21 and had one year of starting experience under his belt. Lest we forget, general manager Mike Maccagnan was fired just after this draft, and it felt like his waste of the third overall pick was the final nail in the coffin.

But Williams has more than just turned things around this year—he’s truly ascended. He’s first among defensive tackles in ESPN’s run block win rate and third in their pass rush win rate. In the back half of the season, no defensive tackle is generating more pressures than Williams.

Williams went from a bust trajectory to the top echelon of defensive tackle play in one offseason. How? Why?

It goes back to that goofy personality. Williams’ performance at Alabama was, at times, ludicrous. It was rare to see a player beating on SEC opponents with such brute strength and power—Williams gave off the impression of a bull in a china shop, a force unaware of his own power, a wrecking ball pointed at the opposing quarterback by Nick Saban with a simple edict: just get there. That isn’t to say he was technically unsound or slow to process—he was just a havoc creator, pure and simple. 

As such, there were things at Alabama that Williams didn’t take seriously, because he didn’t need to. Nutrition was first among them. Not something that shows up in most scouting reports is a prospect’s eating habits, but Williams was able to eat pretty much anything he wanted at Alabama and still physically outclass his opponent. 

“I think the one thing that I really, like, everyone in the NFL does this and nobody in college thinks about this was nutrition,” Williams told the Bart and Hahn podcast. “That’s one of the main things I really had to change. … In college, basically I could eat anything I wanted to eat. But at the NFL level, everybody’s a dog on nutrition. They put the best things in their body so they can perform every week. And that’s one of the huge things I learned from going from college to the NFL or learned from the first year to the second year was what I put in my body is what’s going to control my body.” 

Williams’ body composition has changed accordingly. He came into camp under 300 pounds, but the lost weight was bad weight, and he added muscle mass to compensate for it. 

With his body transformed, his mind had to follow. When rookies enter the NFL, it’s said that they have to get accustomed to NFL speed—and when everything around you is moving faster, you’re moving slower. Williams remarked that overthinking on reps and failing to react on instinct kept him out of too many plays during his rookie season, and he no longer had the strength and explosiveness advantage to account for losing that critical first second. 

With his mind moving quicker and his body better built for NFL speed, Williams’ explosion finally reflects the talent that had the Jets drafting him in the top five. His production is soon to follow. With three sacks in his last three games, Williams is now up to six sacks on the season, which has him tied with David Onyemata for the third-most among interior rushers. When you spend an early first-round pick on a player, you expect him to be a potential All-Pro player. Williams has become that player, with two years still remaining on his rookie deal.

Williams’ ascension should teach us a lesson that’s hard to learn, in a time of hot takes, immediate overreactions, and entrenched opinions: it’s okay to wait on a prospect. It’s okay if a prospect doesn’t dominate in his first season. It’s okay if it takes a year—or two!—for a player to learn how to adapt to the rigors of NFL life.

Consider Jacksonville Jaguars EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson, currently buried on the Jaguars’ depth chart as their 20th overall pick. Another 21-year-old rookie who only started for one season at LSU, Chaisson didn’t even have the elite production that Williams did, but he does have the quality physical traits of a bendy first-step rusher. Chaisson had a five-pressure game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13 after only totaling 10 pressures in all the weeks previous. Often washed away by strength at the beginning of the year, he played with more violence and urgency, and in those flashes, revealed the potential of what could come.

Similar arguments can be made for Chaisson’s fellow tiger, Patrick Queen; the Dolphins’ first-round tackle in Austin Jackson; and another Dolphin in first-round corner Noah Igbinoghene. They all entered the draft crazy young, a bit inexperienced, and have taken their lumps accordingly.

Williams has walked the path they need to walk to start delivering on their draft capital. That path requires an offseason’s worth of difficult work, but it is all too easily forgotten in our time of instant analysis. It took maturation for Williams to shake some of his silliness—not all of it, of course—and take ownership for a bad rookie season. But now his maturity is one of his greatest traits: he knows he can fix things in his game when they go wrong, and that not only gives him the floor of the dominant defensive tackle we’ve seen this season. It gives him the chance to keep growing, from a rising star to a true star, and an absolute home run of a pick.