The Detroit Lions selected Georgia Southern linebacker Antwione Williams in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Now for the hard part: figuring out how Williams fits in Detroit’s defense.
The first thing you notice about Antwione Williams is his physique. My first impression upon seeing No. 37 on the practice field for the East-West Shrine Game in January…
A lot of guys have the bulging biceps and overdeveloped deltoids, but some players skimp on the rest of the body. Not Williams; I noted his thick calves and rippling thighs right away.
He had a solid week of practice in St. Pete considering the sessions were largely devoid of actual hitting, which is his specialty. In my recap, I even noted the Lions should have real interest in Williams:
"Antwione Williams, LB, Georgia Southern–Williams is a yoked-up inside backer, over 6’2” and 247 rock-solid pounds. He moves and flows well, and he attacks the run with the same sort of force and downhill aggression as Stephen Tulloch in his healthy prime. As Tulloch is well past expiration date, tabbing a similar, younger version in Williams in the fifth or sixth round makes sense. He isn’t ideal in coverage but has generally shown awareness and the ability to stay on his toes to move and react quickly."
For some reason, Tulloch remains on the roster, though that seems more of a technicality than a lasting reality at this point. And Williams definitely has the similar build and style of play.
I went back and watched two Georgia Southern games to refresh my memory of his game. Against two opponents I know well, Bowling Green and Western Michigan (I saw both teams in person twice, including against one another last fall), Williams didn’t look as much like a middle backer as I expected.
He played all over the formation for the Eagles, lining up primarily on the strong side but also in the middle and even as a rush end at times. He even took some reps at strong safety, out in space over a flexed-out back at times too. Many times in the Bowling Green game (the Go Daddy Bowl) he functioned as a spy on dual-threat QB Matt Johnson and the read option.
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Williams often aligned tight to the linemen in front of him, something you don’t see so much in the NFL. It puts his nose firmly in the fray right off the bat, and his aggressive style shows up on every snap. He’s a guy who thrives on initiating contact and dictating leverage with his long and powerful arms. Williams can scrape along, but it’s inconsistent. He seems to see the field better from the side than the middle.
He absolutely ruins tosses and off tackle runs. Williams has decent lateral agility and strings himself along adeptly just behind the line of scrimmage and the blocking fray. There is serious pop behind his pads, and that includes when he blows up lead blockers. Williams has great straight-line closing speed, too.
One of the issues I saw is that he doesn’t always use his arms instinctively. He tries to use just his shoulder to blow through blocks on his way to the point of attack. It isn’t all the time, but it’s noticeable. As a result, Williams will get hung up on second-level blocks. He doesn’t innately feel the block coming all that well.
The Lions LB Mix
If that sounds a little like Kyle Van Noy, you wouldn’t be the first to notice the similarity. And I think Williams’ optimal position in Detroit is that SAM backer role that Van Noy has unsuccessfully tried to fill the last two years. Because of his bulk, I think the rookie will get reps there and also as the top reserve Mike backer behind Tahir Whitehead. He has more experience than you might think roaming in coverage. It’s not all positive, but he has a grasp of what he’s doing.
For 2016, I expect Williams to compete with Van Noy and Josh Bynes for the SAM spot. Bynes figures to win it, which means Williams will have to win his roster spot on special teams. With his build, speed and hard-hitting mentality, he could thrive there as the rest of his game acclimates to the NFL. Don’t be surprised if he beats out Van Noy on the depth chart because of his much bigger size, ability to move inside and greater experience in coverage.