Quinnen Williams must deliver or else Jets will be haunted by what-ifs

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Quinnen Williams was hyped as a freakishly talented player, the best in a long line of defensive linemen produced by the Nick Saban football factory at the University of Alabama. Scouts said he fit the mold of the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald for interior players -- undersized but disruptive. The New York Jets (3-7) made him the highest-drafted defensive player in franchise history.

As the season turns toward the homestretch, fans are wondering when they will see that player.

While he has settled into a significant role on the NFL's top-rated run defense, Williams hasn't delivered many splash plays. He has 1.5 sacks, but his full sack was a gift, courtesy of the Miami Dolphins, who mistakenly forgot to block him on one play.

Facing weak offensive lines over the past two weeks, Williams made only one assisted tackle even though he was on the field for a total of 89 defensive snaps, and he was shut out in the sack column despite 12 by the defense.

Is this a case of an inexperienced player adjusting to the NFL or is it a scary harbinger?

"How many games have we played? Ten games? He's a young player; he's still learning," Jets coach Adam Gase said. "He works hard. He'll find his way. He'll find his way to be an impactful player. It hasn't happened for him exactly yet in the last couple of games, but he'll keep working and he'll figure out a way to be a big part of what we're doing."

Williams, only 21, is under a lot of pressure, but he absolutely must become a dynamic player. After all, he was drafted No. 3 overall. The Jets can't afford Leonard Williams 2.0 -- that is, a sturdy, run-stopping lineman with enough skill to pressure the quarterback but not special enough to put him on the ground.

The Jets have been there, done that with Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, first-round picks who never became elite players. Quinnen Williams is supposed to be the one who breaks that trend.

He is a physical freak with an impeccable pedigree. At Alabama, he was "really something special," Saban told ESPN after the draft. Coach Jon Gruden, whose Oakland Raiders (6-4) will face the Jets on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS), said Williams is the main reason why New York has the No. 1 run defense.

In eight games (he missed two with a high-ankle sprain), Williams has 13 solo tackles, four quarterback hits and no forced fumbles.

"I don't look at that, man," Williams said, meaning the stat sheet. "I could go out and have zero tackles and zero sacks, but every play I dominated my block, every snap I dominated my man in front of me. I'd be good with that."

Give him credit for a team-first attitude; he was raised the right way by Saban. In time, though, Williams will be expected to take over the defensive line. Right now, he probably is fifth in the pecking order in terms of production.

Fair or not, he also has to get accustomed to comparisons to San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (seven sacks) and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Josh Allen (eight), who were drafted No. 2 and No. 7, respectively. With Bosa gone, the Jets picked Williams over Allen, a more accomplished college player who would have filled a bigger need for the team at the time.

Truth be told, former Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan preferred Bosa out of the choices, but he was happy with Williams, whom he rated as a rare interior-line prospect. The only concern was that he was only a one-year starter in college.

"It would be crazy for anybody to compare us because we do different things, different schemes, different jobs, different sides of the country," said Williams, alluding to Bosa and Allen. "You can't really compare us."

No one expects an interior lineman to post gaudy sack numbers (unless it's Donald), so perspective is required when evaluating Williams. His pass rush win rate (10.3) ranks 12th among defensive tackles, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He has been double-teamed on 103 passing plays, which ranks 26th among tackles.

"I don't care about double-teams," said Williams, refusing to use it as an alibi. "I don't care who makes the play. I just want the play to be made."

Actually, his pass-rushing metrics are similar to those of Richardson, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns. That's a favorable comparison for the rookie, but it would be disappointing if he fails to surpass Richardson in years two or three.

Gase chose his words carefully when talking about Williams, saying he prefers to evaluate the defense as a whole. He said Williams is "sacrificing himself to help somebody else pop free. We look at it as a group. If those guys are all doing their job, then somebody's going to get free. It just hasn't been him."

Williams doesn't seem fazed by the pressure of being a top draft pick. He received a $21.7 million signing bonus, and he is loving life in the NFL. College was "way harder" than being a pro, he said.

"In college, you have to focus on chemistry, anatomy, this, that, you have to eat, you have to sleep," he said, smiling. "Here, you focus on your opponent. Now, it's full opponent every day."

If Williams fails to reach his potential, the Jets will be haunted by what might have been. When it comes to the draft, one play can change a franchise. Even one yard.

For the Jets, it was a fourth down from the Buffalo Bills' 1-yard line last Dec. 6. If running back Elijah McGuire hadn't scored with 77 seconds remaining, lifting the Jets to a 27-23 victory, they would have finished 3-13 instead of 4-12. They would've leapfrogged the Arizona Cardinals and 49ers in the 2019 draft order, based on a weaker schedule. With the first pick, they probably would've taken Bosa, who is crushing it.

Williams' job is to make people not wish McGuire hadn't scored.