The Giants aren’t blind to the issues that have plagued Leonard Williams in his short career, and they certainly aren’t dismissing his paltry career sack total. But when they look at him, they don’t see the shortcomings as much as they see a 26-year-old with untapped potential and problems they can fix.
In fact, they believe they’re already well on their way to fixing them.
“I think he’s starting to put it all together,” said Sean Spencer, the Giants’ new defensive line coach. “He’s always had the tools. He’s working on refining his craft right now. He looks strong and powerful. I’m just happy with his progress right now.”
Surely that sounds familiar, because the Jets often thought the 6-foot-5, 302-pounder was on the verge of putting it all together, only to be left with his unrealized pass-rushing potential. He was always good at the “hidden production” he often talked about and was clearly a solid player. But in his final 2 ½ years with the Jets, he had seven total sacks – not nearly what was expected out of the sixth overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Can the Giants get more out of him? GM Dave Gettleman has bet a lot on the hope that they can, trading third- and fifth-round picks to the Jets for Williams last October and then doubling down by giving the defensive tackle the $16.1 million franchise tag. That may not be the $100 million contract Williams was seeking, but it’s still big-time pass-rusher money. To justify that, Williams will need a lot more than the half sack he had all of last year.
And that’s where Spencer and new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham come in. There is a belief in the Giants organization that Williams was never used the right way during his 4 ½ seasons with the Jets. The coaches also seem to believe that fixing some of Williams’ technical flaws will help him turn some of the pressure he creates into sacks – to become the finisher he has never really been.
“Obviously he’s a tremendous athlete,” Spencer said. “We’ve got to take him just from being this tremendous athlete to refining him as a football player.”
When Spencer was asked if a veteran player could be taught to be more of a finisher, or if it was more instinctive, he said “I think both.” He said it’s about “understanding your angles and understanding why you finished or didn’t finish.”
And it’s about one thing they’ve definitely seen out of Williams in camp so far – playing very fast and very hard.
“It’s just the continuation of that motor – keep that motor going all the time,” Spencer said. “And if you’re going fast and you’re going hard all the time, I really think that good things will happen. I know it sounds cliché-ish: Just go hard. But that’s part of the basics, that you go hard on every play and good things will happen to you.”
None of that is new, of course, and Williams has surely heard it all before. Former Jets head coach Todd Bowles was once optimistic about Williams’ potential. So was Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last year. And so was Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher last October when when Williams was traded across town.
Still, Williams had just that half sack between the two teams last season, only 5 ½ over two seasons and 7 ½ over three. Yes, he does a ton of other things like defending the run. Yes, he gets pressure on the quarterback and occupies offensive linemen so others can get free.
But he still needs to prove to everyone he can do more.
“I wouldn’t say I have something to prove necessarily,” Williams said. “I think the coaches know and my teammates know what I bring to the table or I wouldn’t be here. I definitely still feel like I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder at the same time, though.”
“He wants to have success,” Spencer added. “No one goes out on the field saying ‘I was this high draft pick, I haven’t reached my potential.’ He wants to be great.”
The Giants seem convinced that Williams will be great for them this season – even though plenty of other coaches have said that before. Spencer isn’t the first to work with Williams on technical flaws, nor is Graham the first to look at Williams’ talent and say, “There’s a big smile that comes on my face when you are dealing with someone like that.”
Is this the year Williams finally justifies that smile? Is this Giants coaching staff the group that can finally coax that potential out of him? Everyone hopes so, because while Williams has been a good NFL player in his first five seasons, that isn’t nearly good enough anymore.
“I’m definitely still a young player in this league. I feel like I still have a lot in the tank. I still feel like I have a lot of years left in me to play in this league,” the ever-optimistic Williams said. “I’m looking at it as an opportunity. I’m not looking at it as something that’s bad. I’m looking at it as an opportunity.”