The Buffalo Bills didn't select a safety in the 2015 NFL Draft after watching starter Da'Norris Searcy leave for free agency, which sets up third-year safety Duke Williams as the early favorite to start opposite Aaron Williams this season. With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at his play to date to see what that means for the Bills defense.
After a mostly inactive rookie season, Williams appeared in all 16 games in 2014 with a firmer role and plenty of snaps played - upon which we make some judgements about what to expect. He was mostly a backup to Searcy in the beginning of the season, before Corey Graham worked his way into the rotation at times.The role was a great fit for Williams, who plays a similar style to Searcy.
Williams is a big, intense safety with a loping gait who closes in well on the line of scrimmage when the running back gets the ball. He hits hard and clean, which is a must for a team that will surely be tested via the run by offenses looking to soften the pass rush.
Plays 1, 3, and 7 all display Williams' ability to move from his starting position to the line of scrimmage in a hurry once the opposing running back has the ball. He does a great job of causing disruption at the line, even if the defensive line has lost the initial push after the snap.
It's in the passing game that we see shortcomings in Williams' game. Not only was he hesitant in coverage, but he occasionally missed badly on open-field tackles against secondary receivers, as seen in Plays 2 and 4.
Coverage issues can be addressed through scheme and personnel, but Williams will have to improve the open-field issues straight away. In both cases, Williams hastily lunged at his receiver, likely excited to make a big hit on a guy who'd just made a catch. But both receivers were too quick for Williams. That will have to change.
Management was wise to go with a cornerback in the second round of this year's draft as opposed to a safety for this reason. With a stronger stable of coverage guys, the burden will be on Duke to stop big gains from becoming bigger, as opposed to preventing them altogether.
Still, the Bills will need Williams to make the proper read in coverage without hesitation when their pass rush fails to deliver, as seen in Plays 5, 6, and 9. In each play, Williams is tasked with following the route most likely to head his way. He pauses when faced with multiple receivers running routes near him, and that hesitation costs him against his receiver each time. In Play 5, the pass to an open Eric Decker fell incomplete, but Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had no trouble exploiting that extra step in Plays 6 and 9, respectively.
There are two main reasons to believe Williams can still be a solid contributor in 2015, despite these shortcomings. The first is the aforementioned issue of scheme. Rex Ryan has another cornerback in his system, which means he can man up on as many as four receivers if need be. That will lessen the burden on the safeties, and likely reduce the number of man-coverage situations for which Williams is responsible. Ryan can't eliminate Williams' role in coverage altogether, because offenses will likely draw plays toward him, but his staff can at least mask it and make it tougher for a quarterback to find those patterns in the secondary.
The second reason for optimism is the growth shown by Williams over the course of the 2014 season. Those open-field whiffs in Plays 2 and 4 were from the first half of the season. As we see in Play 10, from Week 15, Williams handled an open-field situation much better, avoiding a hasty lunge in search of a big hit. Such a mistake is common for a young, high-tempo safety, and if Williams learned to rein that in after a couple months, there's reason to believe he can further get a handle on the mental rigors of stopping an NFL offense.
Additionally, Williams showed growth in pass coverage, as seen in Play 8, which was his lone interception on the season. Williams reads the quarterback and identifies the targeted receiver before snagging the pass and making a nice return on the play. It should be noted that while Williams has decent tracking speed, his is not high-end, made evident by the fact that he was caught from behind on that return despite having an open path to the end zone.
A player's third NFL season is typically considered the most telling of his career, and that's no different for Williams. If he wants to be a starting safety in the NFL, the 2015 season will be when he proves it. He played sheltered minutes in 2014, and showed enough for management to let the position's need slide for a year, which puts the onus on him. Now it's time for Williams to make his strengths stronger, and to prevent his weaknesses from becoming liabilities that reveal a soft underbelly in an otherwise dominant defense.