Williams was the guy who was supposed to anchor their offensive line for years to come. Drafted fourth overall and with the talent to become one of the elite left tackles in the NFL, Williams had arrived in Washington under a banner of expectation.
Yet here he was, in his second season in the league, getting suspended for repeatedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Along with Fred Davis, Williams showed a level of immaturity that the Redskins couldn't afford after seeing their squad decimated by injuries in the preceding weeks.
As the 2012 season approaches, we are already starting to see some familiar signs.
As was reported by Mike Jones of the Washington Post, Kory Lichtensteiger joined Jammal Brown as an offensive line casualty in training camp, following debilitating injuries to both players last year.
This marks one player off my earlier list of Redskins who can’t get hurt in 2012, so I apologize in advance for anything that may befall the remaining four.
Lichtensteiger will miss the remainder of preseason, and no timeline has been provided for Brown’s recovery. Although Tyler Polumbus is a six-year veteran—and Mo Hurt made some useful contributions in 2011—it's sensible to assume that the line will live or die at the hands of Trent Williams—who looks like he'll get his opportunity to prove himself as a leader, just as he wanted.
Preseason reports have been encouraging, with many stating that Williams is the best player on the field right now. “No one else has come close to beating Williams in these drills”, was the verdict from John Keim of the Washington Examiner, who also reported that Williams was shoving his opponents to the ground after beating them. Following practice, Keim spoke to Williams about it:
Just a competitor, man. One on one, mano a mano, all eyes on you and it's just you and him. You don't worry about nothing else but that particular snap and rep. I compete and I hate losing. I feel like I got a point to prove... I'm trying to be the best. Not just better… I want to be dominant.
These are heartening words, which indicate that the suspension was actually exactly what he needed to get his focus back on football. Training camp is one thing, however, and it's not like we haven't seen this before.
The NFC East has an intimidating array of pass-rushers, and Williams struggled to contain them last year. Against the New York Giants in September, Williams looked like he’d completely forgotten how to block, and Jason Pierre-Paul dominated him from the outset. Williams was troubled by Pierre-Paul’s versatility, and the Giants defensive end used his quickness to set the edge and keep Williams off-balance.
The Redskins came out with a win that day thanks to solid performances from Rex Grossman, Fred Davis and Santana Moss, but Williams looked lackluster and undeserving of his draft position the previous year.
This was at odds with the way Williams had played in camp and preseason, where he showed promise and dedication. It had previously seemed that 2011 would be the year where he would become the player the Redskins expected.
The tone of this article has so far erred on the side of negativity, but that is only because Williams’ past has done the same.
His future should sparkle, and the drug tests he failed will be an advantage to him, by virtue of how early in his career the incidents happened. He has rebounded in the best possible way, using the skepticism and wariness of his critics to dominate his opponents.
Not just against the backups, either. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are often referred to as two of the best players on the roster, and Williams hasn't given up anything in training camp so far.
He told Mike Jones that the game has slowed down for him as he enters his third year in the league, and that his increased knowledge of his assignments has enabled him to react quicker and give him the edge in his matchups.
Coming back to the headline: Does this make him more important than Robert Griffin III?
In 2012, I would argue that it does.
The injuries to the offensive line has reduced the level of protection that Griffin will get, and although he has emphatically stated that he has confidence in every guy on the line, Williams has to epitomize that trust and marshal the line into shape.
Training camp has inevitably brought about mistakes from Griffin, mostly from holding onto the ball too long in the pocket. That's okay—Griffin is a rookie and these things will come to him in time.
However, nothing will impede his development more than being let down by his offensive line. He will have less time to run through his progressions, and his mechanics will begin to suffer as he rushes his throws.
If he can't rely on Williams to protect him, he will be constantly distracted by what is happening to his left and be prone to misjudgment.
Continued dominance from Williams can give Griffin the confidence to put his blind side to the back of his mind, allowing him to concentrate on the play and make accurate reads and throws.
Griffin is undoubtedly the most important player to the future of the Redskins, but he enters the league as a rookie, just like everybody else.
This first year is crucial to the next two or three, and if Griffin is given even an extra half-second to make his reads then that will benefit him greatly as his skill set develops. He needs support from his line as he acclimates himself to the league, and Williams can provide that.
Who's more important than the most important guy on the field? The guy protecting him, that’s who.