I love going through old draft classes during the offseason. Last year, I hit some 2018 wide receivers, some 2017 corners, and some 2018 linebackers. This year, I’ve already walked through the 2018 safety class—Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James, Jessie Bates, and more. Now, I’m on to the 2019 defensive tackle class.
And there’s no better player with whom to start than Quinnen Williams, the earliest drafted defensive tackle since Marcell Dareus in 2011. Williams’ college film as a pass-rushing under tackle was so stunning that it placed him in the conversation with Ohio State EDGE Nick Bosa as the most talented player in the 2019 class altogether. When the New York Jets made him their pick at No. 3 overall, they were confident they’d gotten a star.
But Williams’ first year was nothing like what you’d expect from a top-three overall pick. Williams had 2.5 sacks and 11 total pressures through 13 games and was immediately the subject of trade machinations in media circles.
But as I wrote at the end of last season, expectations were always set too high for the 21-year-old defensive tackle, who carried only one season of starting play from his time with the Tide. Coming out of Alabama, Williams had yet to develop the rigorous habits of a professional player. His rookie season was a wake-up call to recalibrate. He took nutrition more seriously and focused on the mental aspects of the game.
And subsequently exploded. It took Williams 13 games in the 2019 season to total 11 pressures; in 2020, he had 14 pressures in a two-game stretch against the Chargers and Dolphins. Across the final eight games of the season, Williams was third among all interior rushers with a PFF Pass Rush Productivity of 9.1, just below Aaron Donald and Leonard Williams; including EDGEs, he was 12th in the league over that stretch.
Williams shining during the back half of the season reflects the growth he’s experiencing on even a weekly basis. Throw in some nagging injuries that have halted his flow, and it’s unsurprising that it took about 20 games for Williams to start rounding into NFL form.
That form is beginning to look reminiscent of his Alabama days. Williams is shockingly quick for a true 300-pounder and is regularly able to cross face and work into gaps beside the one in which he initially aligned. In Gregg Williams’ defense last season, this made Williams a disruptive force that didn’t just tally his own sacks but also created for his teammates.
That explosiveness also lets him get upfield in a hurry as a true penetrator. Williams is able to knife through gaps, generate rolling power, and even work some push-pull ideas off of the initial bull rush to find his way into the backfield. While he was afforded clean-up production given how often he was doubled and remained at the top of the pocket, Brandon Thorn of Trench Warfare charted Williams with the seventh-best Sack Score among all interior rushers last season. Williams put in work for his production and was still peaking when a concussion took him out of the final two games of the season.
That is the big challenge for Williams: staying healthy. In that nagging injuries may have slowed his development over the last two years, further nagging injuries could keep him from ever delivering the dominant pole-to-pole season the Jets expected when they spent a top-three pick on him. Williams missed minicamp this year with a broken bone in his foot that required surgery, and while he should be healthy for training camp, he is starting from behind the mark.
Beyond that, Williams will have to learn a new defense—again testing the mental strides he made in 2020. The Robert Saleh defense has been great to interior rushers over the last few years and Williams figures to be the featured rusher on a young and improving defensive line, but Wiliams must have a firm grasp on his roles and reads to stave off the hesitancy that plagued him for much of his rookie season. In that he’s been through this process before, there’s reason for confidence that he can work through it again.
Williams is one of the most exciting young defensive tackles in the league, given the direction his arrow is pointing and the high quality of his flashes. But eight-game stretches, no matter how explosive, are still eight-game stretches—easily classified as a fluke if consistency doesn’t follow. While Williams still has plenty of time to deliver on the prime investment the Jets made in him, he still isn’t a top-five defensive tackle just yet. A 17-game season of healthy play at the level he showed last season would give him that moniker and springboard his career into a lucrative second contract.