The 2015 NFL draft class projects to be a strong one on the backs of players such as Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon), Brett Hundley (QB, UCLA), Jameis Winston (QB, FSU) and Brandon Scherff (OT, Iowa), but what about the defense?
That's where USC's Leonard Williams comes in. The 6'4", 300-pound junior has the talent, size, athleticism and production that NFL scouts will go crazy for. That's why he comes into the season as my top-ranked defensive player among all draft-eligible juniors and seniors.
What makes him so good?
The NFL is becoming more about versatility and how many different roles you can play on defense, and Williams fits that style perfectly.
He lined up primarily as a left defensive end in the Trojans' 3-4 base defense, but he was also lining up oftentimes in a 3-technique as a pass-rusher and playing in a two-down front with five and six defensive backs behind him. He comes into his junior season ready to play in a number of positions in an NFL-style defense.
The more you can do, the better, and Williams can set up anywhere from a 5-technique (a la Justin Smith) to a 3-technique (think J.J. Watt on passing downs) to a 1-technique (like Dontari Poe). Bringing experience and versatility to the pros is ideal for a defensive lineman, and Williams has experience and production all along the USC defensive line.
Playing defensive line in the NFL really comes down to two things: athleticism and technique. You can get by with less-than-ideal athleticism with special technique, and you can make some big plays with top-level athleticism and poor technique. But to be great, you need both.
Poll NFL scouts whom the ideal athlete at defensive tackle is, and you're likely to get answers like J.J Watt, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Williams, as an athlete, fits in with that group.
He has the long, lean build that teams want from defensive linemen, and he has freakishly long arms. Much like Richardson at Missouri, he looks and moves like an outside linebacker until you realize he weighs 300 pounds.
Playing all over the defensive line, he showed the quickness to fire off the ball and disrupt the play even with a nearly constant double-team from blockers. And when Williams wasn't straight-up doubled, he received a chip from a pulling guard or tight end before being handed off to another blocker.
Being able to work through those blocks—and Williams did a great job going through and not around traffic—shows off his quickness, strength and leverage.
A great sign from his 2013 film is that he violently attacks offensive linemen at the snap. He doesn't wait for the blocker to come off the ball or throw his punch, but instead he uses his strong first step to get inside their frame.
Williams loves to throw a mean double-handed punch at the snap and stun blockers and then use his speed to counter, twist or stunt off the natural edge he created by throwing the opponent's shoulders, hands and head back.
You'll also get relentless pursuit from him in passing situations. He generates surprising push in the pocket by simply working his feet forward and continuing to attack blockers. He succeeds at driving the player back into the pocket and onto the quarterback in many cases.
You would like to see Williams play lower off the snap, though. Too often, early in games he'll come off the ball almost standing straight up, which allows blockers a bigger target to hit and causes him to lose leverage from the first movement.
In college, he gets away with using his unreal closing speed to beat guys after their initial contact, but in the NFL he'll need to learn to use his hands more. Of course, it must be noted that Williams was just a sophomore in 2013 and has unlimited room to grow in technique.
He sat out spring ball with a torn right labrum in his shoulder, but that will not count against him unless he misses games or is slowed on the field by the injury. It is worth watching, but it's not something to red flag.
Pro Player Comparison: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Like the former Temple star, Leonard Williams is a man among boys as a college defensive lineman. He's able to impact the game as a pass-rusher, as a run-stopper and as a threat along the line.
Offensive coordinators are required to think about him and devote two blockers at all times, which in turn frees up his linemates.
Williams may never lead the NCAA in sacks or tackles for a loss, but he could very well lead the league in total pressures if the NCAA counted his sacks, quarterback hurries and the numbers he makes possible for his teammates by drawing the attention of so many blockers.
His presence along the USC defensive line requires offensive coordinators to change their game plan, and that's the best compliment you can give a defensive lineman.
Heading into the 2014 season, Williams is a legitimate top-five player and a likely early selection should he decide to enter the 2015 NFL draft.
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