By Matt Waldman
This year's unofficial theme at Futures is profiling complete football players: physically, mentally, and conceptually sound prospects with the versatility to contribute in multiple roles within their position -- and in some cases, on either side of the ball.
My profiles of Shaq Thompson, Myles Jack, and Ameer Abdullah highlight the skills that earned these three the term of endearment "he's a football player." The more I study tape, the easier it is to see the commonalities among good football players from any position.
They often seem like invisible threads that weave through the game: techniques and concepts that link defensive linemen to wide receivers and running backs, offensive tackles to cornerbacks, and centers to safeties. However, these threads become luminescent when an excellent football player takes the field.
We marvel at their freakish athleticism with cross-positional undertones. He's got the speed of safety and the size of a linebacker. He's built like a defensive end, runs like a feature back, and spins the ball through the eye of a needle with defenders hanging off him. Or, he blocks like a guard, catches the ball like a wide receiver, and runs like an old-school feature fullback.
Last year, I wrote that Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald was on my short list of the safest early-round picks in the 2014 class. I also noted that he was one of the two prospects most likely to develop into a Pro Bowl player.
USC junior Leonard Williams might be better than Donald. At least I think he is, and so does my friend Ryan Riddle.
We watched the USC lineman play both tackle and end against Cal, and he dominated. The 45-minute episode of the RSP Film Room features four quarters of Williams' ferocity, versatility, and savvy.
Riddle and I were so enamored with Williams' game we watched another cutup -- the bowl game against Nebraska -- after the show. We saw an equally impressive performance, and it's this game I'm profiling this week at Futures.
Regardless of position, it's uncommon to see tape where there's something impressive to watch with even half of a player's total reps. Rarer still is when a majority of the reps feature eye-catching work.
Williams had 37 plays that are worthy of sharing here. When I study linemen on either side of the ball, I'm usually happy if I find 10 or 15 from a single game.
Don't be mistaken, a majority of these plays won't appear on a box score. However, if you're seeking a 300-pound run stuffer and pass rusher with the feet of a ball carrier, the grip of a tackle, the release moves and hips of a receiver, and the explosive force and understanding of leverage found among grizzled NFL vets at the line of scrimmage, well then, you've come to the right place for a lineman capable of playing every position along a four-man front.
Balance and Agility
In contrast to a 6-foot-7, muscle-bound behemoth like Baylor's Shawn Oakman, who plays stiff and lacks feel for working in traffic, Williams' comfort in traffic is evident during most of his work. These first two plays highlight the nimble Williams' athleticism and awareness.
The wind-back cut by the wingback on this run is hard enough to jolt Williams, who has his eyes on the back, but his short steps and bent knees and hips off the line provide him the balance to sustain a blow and remain upright. His stance also allows quick adjustment to slide inside the hit and be in on the tackle.
This isn't much different than a running back in an a similar athletic stance who is coiled at the ready for explosion, but moving in measured steps just in case a dramatic adjustment of course is necessary.
Speaking of ball carriers, the next play isn't an agility drill to try at home. Begin with this on an empty field.
Now watch how Williams handles this cut from the left tackle on the backside of his run to right end.
It's nothing more than a practical application of this drill, but when a 300-pound man executes it to perfection when the lights are on and everyone's home, it's enough to impress any running back at first sight.
When a defender has this kind of control over his feet and balance working for him, it's the foundation for a destructive force that is the thrust of Williams' game.
Another building block of Williams' phenomenal potential is his understanding of leverage. Riddle mentions in the RSP Film Room that it would be easy to mistake the 11 examples of Williams manhandling tackles and guards from both his tackle and end positions as displays of pure power. However, in this brief excerpt that illustrates volumes about leverage, Riddle notes that he starred in the Pac-10 and earned NFL opportunities on the basis of his skill to put 300-pound linemen on skates despite only weighing 240 pounds.
There are baselines for physical dimensions and athleticism, but as discussed above, it's the mental game of refining technique and integrating football concepts and strategy that separates the pros from the amateurs. Williams' knack for setting up defenders extends well beyond this play against Cal.
Here is a sample of Williams' 11 displays of leverage from the Nebraska game:
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- Blockers are taught the concept of "letting a defender go where he wants and using the momentum against him." Williams turns this on the right tackle, baiting the lineman into continuing his kick slide for an outside rush, but is setting up a push inside with a one-arm technique to prevent the tackle from getting his hands into Williams' body -- one extended arm can be longer than two.
- Here's a similar effort against the same man without the outside setup
- The center turns to his right to address Williams, so Williams attacks the lineman's back shoulder, removing any chance of the center maintaining his balance.
- Running backs press a hole and cut back, but Williams' effort against the right guard is a lot like a running back. The guard tries to turn Williams inside so the defender obliges, pushing the guard to the middle of the field to narrow the gap where the center leads the back. This forces the back to cut back and Williams "cuts back" in kind -- shedding the guard and making the wrap for a minimal gain.
- The right tackle can't even get his hands on Williams before the defender exploits a weakness on this play. Williams works under the right triceps of the tackle, lifting the arm skyward and robbing the tackle of any hope of gaining control.
Perhaps the timeliest of these examples is another use of that one-arm technique to bull rush the center into the quarterback's passing lane with 0:15 left in the game to help the Trojans preserve a three-point victory.
Few of these examples yielded game-changing plays, but this is why the process is often more important than the result. Williams' consistent ability to beat his opponents forces an offense to double- and triple-team the defender, creating opportunities for the rest of the defensive unit. It also changes the plays the offense will consider running. And USC's willingness to move Williams around the line makes it even more difficult for the offense to key on him.
Cornering at 300 Should Be Illegal
These consecutive plays against the run illustrate Williams' burst as more than straight-line closing speed. When required to pursue, Williams can turn the corner and chase down ball carriers a lot like a backside speed rusher.
Williams doesn't catch Ameer Abdullah on the second run, but the break down the line is no less impressive. There are tight ends in the NFL who can't move as fluidly on routes breaking to the quarterback as Williams demonstrates above.
Thunderous Hands, Concrete Grip
J.J. Watt displayed his amazing grip at Wisconsin. I haven't enough tape to say if Williams possesses the skill to bring down quarterbacks and runners with a single grasp from angles that Watt showed us with the Badgers, but the Trojans defender rocks offensive linemen with his punch and manhandles them to his will.
Here's a display of Williams' grip as he gains control of the right tackle, eventually casting the lineman aside like bale of hay before limiting Abdullah to a 1-yard gain.
This kind of strength, grip, and explosive use of his hands is commonplace in Williams' game. As Riddle commented in the RSP Film Room, the Trojans defender does what he wants with most of his opponents and often reads the field a step ahead of what he's doing -- much like the rare runner who can set up defenders a level ahead.
Williams' bull rush that forces the quarterback to abandon the pocket late in the first half is a strategy with multiple moves. He begins with a punch, follows up with the bull rush, and the moment he feels the tackle's feet get light, he rips the Cornhusker inside and forces the quarterback to run out of bounds.
Here's a violent strike from Williams to the right guard's inside shoulder as a method of shedding the lineman to the ball carrier.
The guard doesn't fall, but he staggers far enough outside that Williams renders the lineman a non-factor for the rest of the play with one blow.
Light Hands and Closing Burst
Strength, balance, and leverage are only a part of Williams' game. He's a complete prospect at the position. Finesse and closing burst play a significant role.
Williams has clean swim moves all over this tape, but one play above displays his speed to close once he's past the first line of defense. Nebraska's quarterback is a more athletic player than many NFL starters, and Williams easily dispenses with the Cornhusker.
There are seven other examples of release moves that generate a push or pressure in this game. Six I won't discuss come at 0:20, 0:56, 1:25, 2:15, 5:53, and 9:32 on the cutup.
My favorite might be this subtle move on third-and-1 in the red zone to stuff the runner in the backfield in the middle of the fourth quarter.
The tackle responds to Williams offering his outside arm like a defender in the open field responds to a running back giving the old dead-leg move. By the time he realizes his error, Williams has wrapped the runner in the backfield.
It's a fantastic example of a defender who has dominated with leverage and power or a swim move for much of the game to save a different, but equally effective maneuver until late in the game to switch things up in a pivotal situation. This is a small example of the I.T. Factor (Integrated Technique) present throughout Williams' game.
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Aaron Donald may have a better career than Williams if the Rams' front four can stay healthy and continue its upward trajectory. However, Williams is more versatile and physical. Depending where he lands, he has the potential to make Donald look like an enticing sneak preview.
The Trojans' defensive tackle has been the most exciting player I've seen on tape this year. I may see others who generate a lot of thrills, but if I'm seeking a cornerstone for a 4-3 front, or I have inherited a losing team that followed the NFL's 3-4 trend despite lacking quality 3-4 personnel, I'd return to the 4-3 and begin rebuilding with Williams.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.