The crowd at tight end in Detroit thinned out on Wednesday, as the team announced that second-year player Michael Williams will transition from that position to offensive tackle.
Michael Williams, the TE drafted by the #Lions out of Alabama in 7th rd last year, has switched to offensive tackle. He'll now wear No. 73.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) May 21, 2014
In theory, the position change makes sense for both Williams and the Lions.
Williams was noted as a blocking specialist at Alabama, and when he weighed in at 278 pounds at his pro day in 2013, some suggested his best path might be to make such a switch. Detroit Lions Draft noted he was a "de facto extra tackle" last summer.
Hall of Famer and Lions legend Charlie Sanders also thought the move made sense way back then, as reported by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Williams' NFL.com draft profile notes that, "Williams looks like a lean offensive tackle, and often blocks like one."
He spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve after breaking his hand in the preseason. Undrafted Joseph Fauria had already rocketed past him on the tight end depth chart with some strong early performances. Fauria validated that ascension with seven touchdown catches in the regular season.
When the Lions drafted Eric Ebron in the first round after already bringing back Brandon Pettigrew, there was no opportunity for Williams to climb higher than fourth at his position. Most teams only keep three tight ends, so that forced a move of some sort.
Showing up to the recent offseason camp at nearly 300 pounds made the move academic.
It's a smart move for Williams, who has proven he has the mentality and technique to make a solid tackle. Here's an example of his blocking prowess from his Crimson Tide days. Williams is No. 89 on the right side of the offensive line:
In the three games available on Draft Breakdown, Williams lines up in-line in a blocking stance on almost 90 percent of his snaps. While he does release straight out as a receiver sometimes, he's at his best in close-quartered, mano-a-mano combat.
From a technique standpoint, Williams is NFL-ready as a tackle. The biggest issue will be adding functional strength.
His frame should comfortably hold the necessary weight gain. He looked lithe and fairly lean at 280, so bumping up to 300 or even 310 shouldn't be a problem at all in terms of conditioning or changing his body.
Those pounds need to include a fair amount of muscle, however. Williams put up the 225-pound bench press just 11 times, per NFL Draft Scout, a pathetic number for an offensive lineman.
That's typically the biggest challenge for tight ends making the move to tackle. One who has done so successfully is Joe Staley, who made the conversion in college at Central Michigan. He's now one of the better left tackles in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers.
When I interviewed Staley back before he was drafted in 2007, he brought up the challenge of adding what he called "tackle bulk." It involved ramping up the strength-training workouts as well as eating copious amounts of very specific foods to optimize his system.
Staley isn't the only success story of converts from tight end to tackle. According to Sports Illustrated, Cleveland's Joe Thomas, arguably the best offensive lineman in football, was a high school blocking tight end, while Anthony Castonzo of the Indianapolis Colts was an erstwhile high school tight end as well.
Current Lions left tackle Riley Reiff spent much of his 2012 rookie season playing as a jumbo package tight end, serving as the third tackle on the line.
Perhaps more importantly, Lions coach Jim Caldwell has been part of two of the most successful conversion stories in the past.
As reported by Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, Caldwell was part of the staff in Indianapolis when the Colts transitioned Chris Hinton from oversized tight end to Pro Bowl stalwart left tackle. That's Hinton pictured left in the 1990 Pro Bowl.
Coach Caldwell was also the tight end coach at Louisville for Bruce Armstrong, who went on to a very successful career as a tackle for the New England Patriots.
If he can adapt quickly, Williams has a much better opportunity to make an impact in his new position. Whereas at tight end he was bound for the practice squad, if even that, he has a legitimate chance to make the active roster as the fourth tackle.
Or, just maybe, Williams could emerge as the top reserve offensive tackle. Veteran Corey Hilliard currently holds that role, but he has not proven himself to be anything special. He's also much more expensive with a salary of $1.55 million, a luxury the cap-strapped Lions cannot really afford.
The only real competition to his roster spot is undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas. Williams and Lucas together will make under $900,000, and both have higher upside and more developmental potential than Hilliard.
Should Williams prove unready, he's likely destined for the practice squad. That would buy him time to add the needed strength and learn the deeper intricacies of playing offensive tackle.
That would also open the door for the Lions to keep promising young Jacob Maxwell as a receiving tight end prospect on the practice squad, too.
Regardless of whether the move ultimately proves successful, it's worth the effort for both the Lions and Michael Williams to give it a shot.
All salary info is from Spotrac.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He also serves as the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer at RealGM. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.
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