With two years of NFL experience under his belt, it’s safe to say that Sylvester Williams has underperformed, based on his level of production and the expectations surrounding him. Selected with the 28th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, many scouts and draftniks saw Williams as a top-10 talent.
His rookie season began as most do for defensive tackles—fraught with inconsistencies. Defensive tackle is notoriously considered to be one of the most difficult positions to learn for rookies making the jump from college to the pros.
Accustomed to relying on their athleticism and power, it often takes young players time to acclimate to the mental differences between college ball and the NFL game. It was no different for Williams. However, down the stretch and into the playoffs of 2013, he began to flash that elite potential, making plays in the run game and rushing the passer.
In the GIF below, watch as Williams bull rushes the right guard from the 5-technique, pushing his opponent into QB Phillip Rivers, who is forced to climb the pocket into Williams’ waiting arms. The play took place in Week 15 of the 2013 season vs. the San Diego Charges.
Animated images via NFL Rewind.
This play shows Williams’ natural power, which was well chronicled in ESPN’s Sport Science. That type of play, alas, also showcased a motor that was absent in Williams' second season (2014) with the Broncos.
Williams possesses a rare combination of strength and quick-twitch athletic explosion. We can see what type of ceiling he has in the GIF below, which happened the very next week vs. the Houston Texans. Williams lines up at the 3-technique and pulls a phenomenal spin move to get past the LG and sack Matt Schaub on third down.
This play is the case in point as to why the Broncos selected Williams in the first round. Besides having to weather the learning curve of a young D-tackle, one of the issues that plagued him in his second year was a lack of motor. He just didn’t seem to care.
Now, it’s been posited that Williams was tasked with executing responsibilities within a scheme (ran by Jack Del Rio) that didn’t suit him. There could be a small modicum of truth to that. More likely is the simple observation that Williams didn’t try hard enough.
Looking ahead, Williams will be the anchor in the Broncos new penetrating 3-4 defense, ran by Wade Phillips. Within Phillips’ scheme, Williams will have the opportunity to do what he does best—utilize his athleticism and power to penetrate and make plays in the backfield.
Williams will also benefit from new defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who does not suffer laziness or lack of intensity lightly. If Williams isn’t giving 100% effort play-in and play-out, Kollar will be in his grill like a Marine drill Sergeant, and Williams will find himself on the bench.
Some might say that Williams’ lack of progress could also stem from having to play in Terrance Knighton’s shadow. That argument has no merit, however, as Knighton’s command of double teams at times should have freed Williams up to make more plays one-on-one.
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This piece is about Broncos players on the brink of breaking out. The NFL is a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ type of league. Last season, Williams was uninspiring. However, he now has 20 NFL starts under his belt (including playoffs) and will be deployed in a system that suits his strengths.
Sly Williams is a player on the brink of stardom. The talent is obviously there. All the tools are at his disposal. John Elway has opened the door. Now Williams must break break through it.
In the video below, Sly Williams speaks from the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine about his professional aspirations