Sylvester Williams has a very interesting and unconventional path to the NFL. I would highly recommend reading this excellent profile on Williams by Troy Renck of the Denver Post. He has largely been anonymous during his time with the Broncos as defensive stars like Von Miller, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward usually get most of the press on that team. The Broncos declined to pick up Williams’ 5th year option last offseason with John Elway citing his limited role not being worth the $6.75M price tag. The limited role Elway referenced was due to the fact that the Broncos were only using Williams for early down work, preferring to go with guys like Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Vance Walker, and Antonio Smith in sub-packages. However, Williams’ defensive snap count percentage has been on the rise every year since entering the NFL: 26.3% in 2013, 39.4% in 2014, 48.8% in 2015, and 56.4% in 2016 per Football Outsiders. While Denver wasn’t interested in exercising his 5th year option, they were reportedly interested in bringing Williams back in some capacity.
Confirming DT Sylvester Williams has 3-yr deal w/ TEN. DEN offered multiyr deal. He asked to return on 1-yr deal. Didn't work out. #9sports— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) March 11, 2017
The Titans signed Williams to a 3 year deal worth a total of $17.5M with $9.5M of that guaranteed to come in and replace the recently released Al Woods after a brief flirtation with signing Brandon Williams (sigh). He has 94 tackles and 6 sacks in his 4 year NFL career to this point, but defensive tackles (especially nose tackles in a 3-4 scheme) are rarely truly measured by traditional stats. PFF has graded him out at 46.1 in 2013, 44.9 in 2014, 74.7 in 2015, and 43.5 in 2016. Not exactly a sterling record there, but here is Jon Robinson’s take on why he wanted to add Williams:
“Sly is a big, mature and athletic man, who plays with a good motor,” said Titans General Manager Jon Robinson. “In the lead-up to the 2013 Draft, I was able to work him out when he came out of North Carolina and he has the ability to two-gap, but also has some quicks to penetrate. Watching him against some of the better offensive lines last year, he played well and we are looking forward to adding him to our group.”
As Jimmy pointed out in an article a few weeks ago, Robinson also told Midday 180 that he was confident that Dick LeBeau could “cook up something” for Williams, which is an interesting comment for a guy who projects as a 3-4 nose tackle. It does make you think that they see Williams as a guy whose skillset may fit better in their scheme than he did in Denver.
Here is Williams’ spider graph from mockdraftable.com to give you an idea of his physical makeup:
So what are the Titans getting in Williams? I went back and checked his 2016 tape to see what kind of player we should be expecting to see when the NFL kicks back off this fall. What I saw was a guy who would probably be a slight upgrade over Al Woods, but not necessarily a game changing type player. He had a few moments when you saw the WOW type plays that made him a 1st round pick, but there were a lot that showed him looking pretty average. A couple things up front that really jumped out to me about Williams.
First, he is really good at understanding his role on the defense and rarely goes “off script” to try to make a play. One of the ways that he shows this on tape is his ability to maintain gap integrity in run defense. Here he is against the Texans. He is lined up in a 0-technique shading the center towards the left guard, but in this defensive alignment, he is responsible for both A gaps. He fights across the face of the center to flash in the hole and turn Miller back for what ends up being no gain on the play. Like most nose tackle contributions, this isn’t something that shows up on a stat sheet or a highlight reel, but make no mistake, this is a play that Williams makes possible.
The one play that Williams defended better than any other was stretch plays. He was really good at scraping down the line with the center and keeping cutback lanes from opening up. Here is an example of that against the Chargers. He’s 92, again lined up in a 0-tech which was how he lined up on about 85% of the snaps he played (the other 15% being mostly a 3-tech in sub-packages). He does a good job of locking out the center and scraping down the line which forces Gordon to try to bounce the run wide.
One more example of this from what was probably his best overall game of the year. Williams had an excellent game against the Raiders outstanding offensive line in Week 9 on Sunday Night Football. Jon Robinson was quoted in this Jim Wyatt article about Williams signing with the Titans as saying “watching him against some of the better offensive lines last year, he played well and we are looking forward to adding him to our group.” I think that quote was likely talking about this Raiders game specifically. In the play below, Williams is being blocked by Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson and does a great job again of two-gapping and making the tackle.
Here’s another play from the same game where he is matched up against Hudson. Again, he maintains his gap discipline and is able to force the running back back in to the teeth of the defense.
Let’s stick with that Raiders game for a minute. Here is one of the WOW type plays that you see from Williams from time to time. This is really still a 0-tech alignment since the Raiders have a jumbo package in with an extra tackle and two tight ends lined up to the right of the formation, but since it is an unbalanced look, Williams is lined up over right guard Gabe Jackson. He absolutely embarrasses Jackson on this play, with a quick move inside while swatting him aside and swallowing up Latavius Murray in the backfield for a big loss.
The next play is a touchdown for the Raiders, but Williams does impressive work. Watch him split the double team of Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson (both Pro Bowlers) to make a heckuva attempt to stop Murray. Murray reaches back and puts the ball over in a very dangerous move, but 9 times out of 10 this is a stuff by Williams.
While, we’re here let’s go ahead and look at Williams’ absolute peak play from the 2016 season. RIP Joe Hawley...
Williams wasn’t used to pass rush much in Denver as they preferred to go with Jared Crick and Derek Wolfe as their 3-tech DTs between Miller and Ware on pass rush downs (which is the right move because they are really good in those roles), but Williams showed a little more juice as a pass rusher than I expected when I watched him. He has a really good spin move that he used several times. Here it is against Carolina.
Here is another one from the same game.
He’s got a little rip move and swim move as well that flash from time to time.
So he can rush the passer if called on to do so, but for the most part, the majority of his pass rush snaps looked like this...
Again, this is him playing within the defensive system. He does a good job of staying in his rush lane and not getting out of position against a quarterback who can make you pay if you get out of your lane.
The other thing that he did very consistently on tape was get his hands up in the passing lanes. He’s pretty average height for a defensive linemen so he’s not J.J. Watt or Calais Campbell at this skill, but he consistently tries it and that makes a difference. Tipped passes often result in easy interceptions so just getting 2 or 3 of these per year can make a huge difference.
I don’t want to oversell Williams. The plays above are the highlights of his 2016 season. The things he does well consistently are two-gapping when left one-on-one against a center, scraping down the line on stretch plays, and getting his hands up in passing lanes. The pass rushing is just flashes here and there, and the splitting double teams is very rare. There are lots of plays where Williams gets blocked 5 yards downfield and taken out of the play altogether. Here is an example of that. Spain and Jones get Williams on skates and run him a good 6 yards downfield.
Williams really struggled with double teams. He’s just not big and strong enough to really anchor against these kinds of power blocking schemes. To be fair, few players are, but he’s just not a Casey Hampton/Vince Wilfork/Brandon Williams type of double team eating nose tackle.
The other big issue with Williams was consistency. He would disappear from entire games where he would do very little. You don’t expect to get big, flashy plays from your nose tackle all the time though. Can you remember the last time we left a Titans game saying “man, can you believe that play Al Woods made”? Me either. But Williams certainly ran hot and cold over the course of the season.
I think we can reasonably expect Williams to be an upgrade over Woods, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Austin Johnson push him for the starting spot if Johnson continues to play like he did in the last few games of 2016. Obviously the Titans consider Williams to be quite a bit better than Woods since they could have paid Woods much less to play here in 2017 than they will Williams. I’m not as high on this signing as I am on the Ryan and Cyprien signings, but the team got at least marginally better at nose tackle which is a good thing.