2017 NFL Draft: Alabama's Tim Williams Is This Year's Rising Star Pass-Rusher

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2016

Alabama linebacker Tim Williams (56) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (29) jog off the field during an NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Roger Steinman/Associated Press

Half of the NFL has virtually no shot at making it into the postseason heading into the final two weeks of the year. Now, well into the winter, many are shifting their attention from living and dying with their teams on weekends to focusing on what their squads may or may not do in the offseason.

Looking at the 2017 NFL draft, the strongest position the class has to offer is the depth of the edge-defenders who are eligible to declare, including the likes of Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, Stanford's Solomon Thomas, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Auburn's Carl Lawson and Tennessee's Derek Barnett.

With that being said, quietly, the best pure pass-rusher just might be Allen's Crimson Tide teammate Tim Williams.

In the last three draft classes combined, only two senior pass-rushers have come off the board as top-20 picks in former Clemson Tiger Vic Beasley and former Buffalo Bull Khalil Mack. Beasley, who returned for a final year after being labeled undersized, and Mack, who had to play through his senior season to prove his talent was legitimate as a mid-major prospect, both currently rank among the NFL's top-five sack artists for the 2016 season, combining for 25.5 sacks, more than six franchises have posted for the entire year.

Williams, who is a part of an Alabama defense poised to make back-to-back title runs, is currently listed at 6'3" and 252 pounds on NFL Draft Scout, the same height and heavier than Beasley and Mack were measured in as during their combines.

So while there may also be concerns about Williams being "just a pass-rusher," recent history would suggest an edge-defender who plays at a high level for multiple seasons, despite hovering around the NFL's minimums at the position, has a high chance of being successful in today's day and age.

Tim Williams6'3"252
Vic Beasley6'3"246
Khalil Mack6'3"251

After two years of solid production in Alabama's 3-4 defense, which isn't partial to pure pass-rushers, Williams has 19.5 career sacks and 29.5 career tackles for a loss heading into his final games as a senior prospect.

Williams, after being buried in Alabama's deep defensive rotation for his first two years, has emerged as one of the more developed pass-rushers in college football, despite playing a situational role with the Crimson Tide.

He's more than surpassed the bar Scout.com set for him as a 4-star recruit coming out of Louisiana, despite his limited—but effective—reps. According to Pro Football Focus' college football data, Williams was the 13th-best pass-rusher in college football from a raw grades standpoint.

PFF has him listed with just 340 snaps on the year, the fewest in the top 25, and 11 of the 12 players who rank above him had at least 180 snaps more than he did in 2016. Basically, with less than two-thirds of the reps of other elite pass-rushers nationally, Williams still separated himself from the pack.

He was also Pro Football Focus' 11th-best edge-defender overall for the regular season, and eight of the edge-defenders ranked above him had at least 290 snaps more than his 340 in 2016. His lack of three-down play can raise some questions, which are all answerable, but his two-year rise in college football really comes down to two words: situational and effective.

When you look at the depth of Alabama's defensive line, you see a historical unit. After losing two second-round picks in A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed to the NFL draft last season, the squad still has Allen, who received Heisman Trophy Award votes, Williams, Da'Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson, Ryan Anderson and Da'Shawn Hand, who at this point in their careers figure to play on the line of scrimmage at the next level.

Because the Crimson Tide has so many quality bodies and because defensive linemen are some of, if not the, most rotated players on every Power Five team, Alabama spends no time wasting players "out of position" relative to the other talent in their unit.

That means Allen, a potential first-overall-pick candidate, played base end for the majority of the team's snaps, while Williams came off the bench in a pass-rushing role on long or late downs, despite the fact he would be an All-American candidate at the majority of other programs even in the SEC.

Now, relatively, Williams may be a worse run defender than Allen based on how they are used on early downs, but that bar is set high, whereas the same staff believes Williams has more talent as an edge-defender in pass-rushing situations than Allen, which is also a bar that is set high.

On the surface, if you just knew that about Williams, you could label him as "just a pass-rusher." But when you watch his reps as a run-defender, you will find that while a hair short of Allen's grades, he's still a more than capable edge-setter.

Specifically, the best game to evaluate Williams' run defense is his 2016 game against LSU, when he might have had the best game of any 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end in the country this season. According to Pro Football Focus' numbers, Williams played between 19 and 51 percent of defensive snaps in the non-LSU games for Alabama this season, while he registered an out-of-character 69 percent of the reps against the Tigers.

The result? LSU's Leonard Fournette, who might be this draft class' top running back prospect off the board in April, was held to just 35 rushing yards off of 17 carries, less than half of the back's yards-per-carry average in any of his three individual seasons.

Those stats may look like circumstantial evidence but when you watch the game, you see Williams setting the edge over and over, forcing Fournette into the teeth of Alabama's swarming defense, which is all you can ask for from a 4-3 defensive end at the next level.

If you really want to dig for it, you can make a highlight reel of Williams putting tight ends on their butts in the ground game in 2016, not your typical film for edge-defenders who don't get many run-down opportunities.

Williams' 2-4-6 steps. I still think it's easier to keep balance/explode better out of a three-point stance. pic.twitter.com/PXlA4Lz46G

— Grinchard Rodgers (@JuMosq) December 21, 2016

With both the size and run defense questions answered, which stem from his usage and size, you can free your mind of the distractions keeping you from focusing on his talent as a pass-rusher.

Be it off of well-executed stunts, speed rips off of slants, bull-rushing by winning the inside hands battle, blowing a tackle's base up to take an inside line or simply bending the edge like a Beasley did at Clemson, Williams can get after the quarterback.

Here's the difference between a rusher like Tim Williams vs Irvin: It takes Irvin 7 steps to separate from a bookend pic.twitter.com/g9O0NJIQAM

— Grinchard Rodgers (@JuMosq) December 21, 2016

Some undersized pass-rushers have failed to meet expectations in the past, like former Seattle Seahawk and now Oakland Raider Bruce Irvin, but there is a big difference between the two: Williams can put a bookend behind him in five steps, where it often takes Irvin seven steps to get to a "rip" position.

In the NFL, that's the difference between a five-sack season and a 12-sack season: the ability to "win" in the pass-rushing game two steps shorter than mid-level edge-defenders.

Something to note about Williams: Alabama often has him playing with inside foot up. That hurts as a pass-rusher. pic.twitter.com/azs7WA2Dm7

— Grinchard Rodgers (@JuMosq) December 21, 2016

Williams' arrow should be pointing up, too, as he's not playing in an ideal stance at Alabama, even if he is playing on throwing downs. In a two-point stance, he plays with his inside foot up, as linebackers often have to hide their intentions, where in a three-point stance, defensive ends play with their inside foot back and are told to step to contact, making them more explosive players.

If Williams can land with a 4-3 team like Beasley did in Atlanta, he could become a star in the NFL, even though he has the same lingering questions around his draft stock Beasley did around this time in the 2015 draft cycle. What should help shed some of those notions, on top of evaluators digging deep into Williams' tape, will be what Williams should accomplish at the combine and his pro day.

The Alabama product does a good job of keeping cutting offensive linemen off of his legs, which generally is a good measurement of athleticism, both on the field and in Indianapolis. When teams truly see how his athleticism mirrors Beasley's, expect to hear him as a "riser" who could creep all the way up to the top of the draft.

According to AL.com's Matt Zenitz, Williams was arrested in September for carrying a pistol without a permit, but other than that single off-field incident, there's little to nothing to knock Williams about. If he can answer questions about the episode to general managers, scouts and coaches through the all-star circuit, the combine and his pro day, Williams will be a stone-cold lock to be a top pick in the 2017 draft.

He's a pass-rushing prospect who dominated when on the field for an elite team going on a historical run, he showed plenty of moves and creativity against bookends, he's explosive and athletic and when given the opportunity to contribute as a three-down player, he dominated as a run-defender as well.

In most years, he'd be discussed as the top edge-defender in a draft class, and anyone with an eye on the coming College Football Playoff or draft cycle should keep an eye out for this rising star.