If anyone can beat out Winston or Mariota atop the draft, it’s Leonard Williams
INDIANAPOLIS — The "Big Cat" is an unusual breed.
Most defensive linemen who enter the draft are projected specifically at end or tackle in 3-4 and 4-3 systems.
Not Leonard Williams.
The NFL hasn’t had a d-line prospect with such versatility entering the league since J.J. Watt was selected at No. 11 overall by Houston in 2011. Williams is expected to get picked much higher. Tennessee (No. 2), Jacksonville (No. 3), Oakland (No. 4) and Washington (No. 5) are all teams that should be seeking to improve their defensive fronts.
In fact, a strong argument could be made that Williams would be a "safer" pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 1 rather than top quarterbacking prospects Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
"I would say that from the previous years, sometimes it’s taking a chance when you take a quarterback," Williams said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "You never know what you’re going to get. I would say that I’m going to bring that disruption and physical-ness. I’m going to get to the quarterback and get some sacks."
The 6-foot-5, 298-pound Williams did all of those things during his three years at the University of Southern California. He logged a staggering 57 tackles for losses despite playing his first two seasons with a torn labrum (he had corrective surgery in the 2014 offseason). Williams totaled seven sacks in 2014.
Making all this even more impressive: Williams won’t turn 21 until June 20.
Williams draws comparisons to Richard Seymour, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses during his 12 NFL seasons. Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht told FOX Sports the assessment is apt. Licht worked in New England’s personnel department from 2003 to 2005 while Seymour played for the Patriots.
"He’s big. He’s long. He’s very athletic and he can really run," Licht said of Williams. "You can play him in a five-technique, a three-technique. He can come off the edge a little bit.
"He’s 3-4/4-3. He looks like he has tools to fit any scheme for whoever drafts him. It’s pretty rare."
Williams didn’t plan on becoming a jack-of-all-trades player, but USC employed three different coordinators and three defensive line coaches during his three seasons (2012-2014). Although forced out of his comfort zone at times, Williams said he enjoyed the challenge of learning different things that he wouldn’t have been taught with more coaching stability.
"I’d rather move around the whole d-line than stay in one spot the whole time," Williams said. "It was more fun to create matchups and be able to go against some weaker opponents every once in a while and getting to the quarterback. When the coaches switched it up for me, I liked it."
Along the way, Williams picked up his "Big Cat" nickname.
"I think because of my hair," said Williams, whose poofy coif would make Sideshow Bob proud. "A lot of people call me a Lion and stuff like that. My name is Leo so Leo the Lion.
"I really don’t know where the nickname came from but I think (maybe from) the announcers that do the game. It’s pretty cool. I took it and ran with it."
Williams said he considered returning for his senior season but financial considerations prompted him to turn pro. Williams wants to help provide for his 2-year-old daughter as well as his mother, Aviva Russek, who raised him and four other siblings as a single parent. (Williams’ father, Clenon, is serving prison time in Florida for multiple offenses, including robbery with a deadly weapon.)
Williams said one of his first purchases upon signing his NFL contract will be a new house for his mom because the family moved around so frequently in rentals during his youth.
"My mom was a strong single parent," Williams said. "She took care of five children who were all my size so I’m sure it was hard for her to put a lot of food on the table."
Williams smiled, but his inability to play football as a kid was no laughing matter. Williams said he was always too big for Pop Warner leagues as 210-pound middle school student, so he turned to rugby until finally getting his crack at football in high school.
"I was in the scrum but I was at the back of the scrum," he said. "I played eight-man (rugby). I was able to run the ball a lot. That’s why I liked rugby so much. I’m so used to being on the defensive side tackling guys. I was actually able to grab the ball and run sometimes."
Williams will now wait to see which team will run his draft card to the podium in Chicago on April 28 when the first round is held. Williams said he met Thursday night with the Titans, which play a 3-4 defense under new assistant head coach Dick LeBeau and coordinator Ray Horton.
"When you think of a three-four defense typically you think of a big two-gap player," Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. "It’s rare to find players that can do that — play one gap, penetrate, and get up the field and rush the passer.
"When you have a guy like Leonard who can do both, that’s something special."
Special enough to garner serious consideration for the draft’s top spot.