With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#35: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
We continue this year's series with Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams, the JUCO transfer from Australia who made a real name for himself in Nick Saban's defense in 2012. Williams grew up playing basketball and rugby in Brisbane, and coaches from the University of Hawaii discovered him there when he was 16. Since his academics were incomplete, Williams enrolled at Western Arizona Community College, amassing 76 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks in 18 games over two seasons. Saban came calling before the 2011 season, and Williams chose the Crimson Tide over a host of other high-profile schools. He started 13 games that first season as a five-tech end in Alabama's multiple fronts, moving inside on passing downs.
In 2012, Saban moved the 6-foot-4, 323-pound Williams inside to nose tackle, but he also played a lot of three-tech. It was inside on a regular basis where Williams was able to truly display his impressive combination of speed, agility, leverage, and freakish strength. He had 17 solo tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks in two seasons with Alabama, but those stats don't tell the whole story with Williams -- you really have to look at the tape and project another level of future development to get the picture.
Williams skipped the speed and agility drills at the scouting combine due to a knee issue, but ran a 4.92 40 at Alabama's pro day. He proved to be agile in the short shuttle and three-cone drill, rounding out all the signs of his athletic potential. We've seen many underdeveloped athletic freaks come into the NFL in recent years, especially on the defensive line, and between Williams, Ezekiel Ansah, and Margus Hunt, this is a banner year for them. But Williams may be the easiest of this year's crop to project to the next level because his raw skills are easily superimposed onto potential football greatness.
Pros: Benches 600 pounds in the weight room and that upper-body strength transfers to the field. Incredible leverage player who frequently takes on double teams as a nose shade defensive tackle, or straight over center, and rarely gets stood up or rocked back. Will push back blockers who outweigh him by 20 and 30 pounds, and will occasionally throw a blocker out of the way. Comes off the snap low and angry and loves to mix it up. Disengages from blocks quickly and gets on the move to tackle ballcarriers. Gums up gaps of one and two blockers, allowing others to flow through and make plays. Equally effective as a three-tech tackle shading outside the guard, especially on run plays.
Aggressive form tackler who wraps up when he can, but has the pure strength for the occasional one-handed takedown. Has an impressive forward burst to the quarterback when he hits the pocket, and gets up to top speed quickly when looping around a gap. Hand techniques are still nebulous, but he'll hit a swim move once in a while and just blow up a double team -- just blast right through it. Has the speed and awareness to chase down mobile quarterbacks in the open field. Tireless player who gives maximum effort -- will peel off blocks and go chasing backs 10 yards and more downfield. Zeroes in on ballcarriers in space and has the awareness to avoid a lot of missed tackles -- especially impressive for his size/speed combination. Is not overly reliant on linemates to do what he needs to do.
Cons: Needs more development with his hand movement -- tends to go with a straight bull rush, which is effective, but he loses traction when he gets his hands outside the shoulder pads. And when he comes off the ball too high, he doesn't have the technique to make up for the resulting loss in leverage. Would be devastating with evolved rip and swim moves. Could use more lateral strength, as he tends to get walled off to the side by bigger players. Not specifically big and wide enough to kill run plays on goal-line stands -- needs to function in a more versatile and agile front if he's to play a lot of nose tackle.
Doesn't yet have a highly-developed sense of keys -- tends to wrestle too much at times and will miss tackle opportunities. Loses a lot of power when he hits the line at an angle. Played end in 2011, but was far more a traditional 3-4 end than any sort of pass rusher. Gets to the pocket with power, not speed, and doesn't really dip around the tackle.
Conclusion: It would be pretty nuts to compare Williams, who is still an unfinished player, to San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, who's played at an NFL MVP level over the last two years, and an extremely high level before that. But I see a lot of Smith elements in Williams' embryonic game (minus the pass rush ability), and over time, he might live up to that. While he'll never be mistaken for an elite quarterback disruptor in the Warren Sapp or Ndamukong Suh mold, he's far more than just a bowling ball capable of soaking up blocks between the guards. It's easier to picture him as the ideal multi-gap player in today's NFL fronts, and Alabama was a perfect training ground.
Williams has the rare ability to make consistent plays anywhere on the line, against most blocking schemes, and without a considerable drop-off wherever he lines up. In that regard, he does make me think of Smith, who evolved over time into the kind of player who could garner high Pro Bowl votes at both end and tackle in the same season. Williams is 50 pounds heavier, which makes his explosiveness all the more impressive, and puts me in mind of another Pro Bowl tackle -- the great Haloti Ngata. You put Jesse Williams in the right system, with great NFL coaching, and you'll have a nuclear-level beast on your hands sooner than later.
NFL Comparison: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens