An intricate course must be plotted to avoid the first-round busts who are scattered annually and the front office detonation that often comes with them. The search for elusive perfection is always present, but so is the awareness that risking too much and reaching too far comes with consequences.
Achieving perfection while navigating the dotted draft minefield means identifying safety. The savvy general manager must determine which prospects have hopeful ceilings that won’t be reached, and which have floors far higher than the rest.
USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams fits into the latter category. He’s superior statistically and athletically compared to his peers, and he plays a position that comes with far less draft volatility.
He might be the most talented prospect and the safest. That combination would also make Williams the perfect prospect.
That’s not a description tossed around lightly. But then again, neither is this bold statement from USC athletic director Pat Haden:
Haden could be a wee bit biased as the main czar of all things Trojans. But NFL analyst Charles Davis had no such ties when he said Williams has “Hall of Fame talent,” via Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times.
There’s also no praise higher than words from the mouth of Gil Brandt, lord of the draft gurus.
“I think he might be the best player in this draft,” Brandt told Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy. Brandt also dropped a Canton comparison, saying Williams reminds him of Warren Sapp, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Williams checked in at 6’5” and 302 pounds after the standard poking and prodding was over at the NFL Scouting Combine. Then he pushed that body mass and wingspan to a time of 4.97 in the 40-yard dash, prompting NFL Network’s Mike Mayock to drop another eye-widening comparison, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin: Richard Seymour.
Take your pick, and you can also choose from other common names that have been plopped alongside Williams’, like the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell or the Buccaneers’ Gerald McCoy. But Williams himself prefers another name, according to Dane Brugler of CBS Sports:
Where does all of that high praise and drool come from? Well, mostly two areas that combine to make Williams the best defensive prospect in this year's draft—and the best non-quarterback.
Leonard Williams the athlete
Williams’ collegiate career concluded with 21 sacks, 36.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and five forced fumbles. Of his total tackles (218), 16.7 percent came behind the line of scrimmage.
That production oozes from box scores to give team executives a serious case of starry eyes, especially if they’re employed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans or Jacksonville Jaguars (teams with the top three picks). But a true appreciation of Williams as an athlete lies in the highest form of NFL prospect standard testing.
Williams did something we haven’t seen in a decade when he needed only 4.97 seconds to run 40 yards in a straight line, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
That’s some serious movement, and not at all normal. The Oscars are fresh, so the appropriate classic movie scene here would be Indiana Jones frantically running from a giant rolling rock (Williams is the rock, and he wins this time).
Williams is wise to model his game and training after Watt. That’s a smart career move for any defensive lineman. At his combine appearance in 2011, Watt posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.84 seconds, which compares favorably to Williams considering the weight difference between the two.
The 1.72 10-yard split posted by Williams during his combine appearance Sunday was also impressive, especially when put next to Watt’s time of 1.64.
Few can even begin to approach Watt's level, since the bar set by generational talents is always exceedingly high. But there’s a parallel between the two when we focus solely on speed, a critical asset for the stated goal of every pass-rusher: to consistently create disruption.
So for a man of his log-like size, Williams can move quickly when he’s in shorts against only air in Indianapolis. But how does that translate to football speed and effectiveness?
Leonard Williams the versatile athlete
When you press play on Williams’ game film, his blend of acceleration and power is clear immediately. That’s what made him a movable chess piece for USC. He was often used as a 3-4 defensive end, but his muscle to generate a deep inside push made him an imposing threat when lined up as a defensive tackle, too.
He’s a hybrid presence, which is critical in today’s NFL with blitz packages constantly evolving to create mismatches against pass-oriented offenses. To see the full arsenal of Williams’ weapons, we can look back to a 2014 National University Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.
On 1st-and-10 in the first quarter, Williams lined up as the Trojans’ left defensive end. After exploding upward from a four-point stance, he then had the agility to shift direction before the right tackle jabbed at his chest.
He anticipated his opponent’s advances and swiftly avoided them by planting his left foot. Instantly, Williams had the tackle off balance.
That was the speed element. The power element appeared when Williams pushed through the contact, used his athleticism to complete a textbook swim move and left the tackle to grasp at nothing.
Williams was in Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s grill roughly two seconds after the snap, forcing a frantic and wayward throw that thumped off a USC defender's chest and should have been intercepted.
That’s one slice of Williams, but it offers a taste of the entire package. In a few seconds, he showed both forward and lateral quickness. And in those precious ticks, he didn’t look or move like a 300-plus-pound man.
In the same game, Williams stood up on the outside and also bull-rushed as a defensive tackle on the inside. The result was often repeated, as Williams’ thrashing led to either pressure or a run diverted because of deep backfield penetration.
Leonard Williams the first overall pick?
In his most recent mock draft, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Williams slotted as the second overall pick to the Titans. A top-three draft home seems to be the early consensus, with all four mocks at NFL.com placing him in that prestigious draft territory, too.
Williams climbing that extra rung to be the first name called by Roger Goodell on April 30 rests with the Buccaneers and exactly how deep their burning quarterback itch becomes over the next two months.
There are questions hovering around both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Meanwhile, Williams is versatile, athletic and disruptive. He’s also safe, and all those things combined just might make him the perfect prospect.