Arizona Cardinals' star defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have one important similarity with third round draft pick Brandon Williams head coach Bruce Arians said was a guiding factor in the team's decision to select Williams.
Though Peterson and Mathieu played college football at LSU and Williams competed at Texas A&M, all three players were coached by current Aggies' defensive coordinator John Chavis.
At 6-feet and 197 pounds, Williams has the size and the 40-yard dash time (4.37) the Cardinals look for when evaluating cornerbacks, but perhaps more importantly, Arians said the Cardinals drafted Williams after he earned the recommendation and praise of a coach the organization trusts.
"Here's a guy that was coached by one of the best defensive coaches in college, who's had a lot of corners play, and he ranked him with some of the best he's ever coached, and I trust John Chavis as much as anybody in the country," Arians said.
Chavis' evaluation was potentially more critical for Williams than for past players Arians and general manager Steve Keim have looked at because Williams has just one season of experience as a cornerback under his belt.
A 5-star recruit out of high school, Williams initially signed with and competed for the Oklahoma Sooners as a running back. After transferring to Texas A&M, Williams continued his career as a back before switching to the defensive side of the ball in June of 2015.
The Cardinals were struck by Williams' development as a cornerback in the matter of just one season, and Keim and Arians were also impressed by the natural athletic abilities and the leadership qualities Williams displayed with the Aggies.
"A guy that made that transition so late was not only a team captain, but we talked to John Chavis, Kevin Sumlin, all the people on the campus and there was no question that he was the team leader," Keim said. "The guy who was a vocal catalyst for the Texas A&M team this year. A guy who has loads of upside, long and athletic, 6-foot, 200 pounds, ran a 4.3, tremendous change of direction and movement skills, a guy who fits our scheme perfectly."
How He Fits
In our film evaluation of Williams, we noted Williams' impressive burst out of his backpedals and an ability to accelerate and drive toward the ball. These are traits that often come more naturally to certain athletes and Williams was able to demonstrate these abilities with ease during his first true season as a cornerback.
Physical gifts aren't the only factors the Cardinals take into consideration when drafting players, as Keim has a record of pursuing players who were team captains at the college level. At Texas A&M, Williams showed both the raw tools and the leadership qualities the Cardinals crave, and he did so with just four months to make an on-field impression for NFL scouts.
"You watch the guy's workout, some of the things he does from a movement standpoint, his ability to plant and drive, it is amazing that a guy played running back for the majority of his career and he's able to transition that quickly and play in the SEC against some of the top competition and have success," Keim said. "To be able to trail and mirror and run with guys with ease."
The Cardinals are confident in Williams' continued development because the organization believes Williams is a perfect fit for defensive coordinator James Bettcher's scheme. In college, Williams struggled with breaking on slant routes and comeback routes and often had to rely on his speed to make up for late reactions. On many occasions where receivers created separation from Williams, the Aggies had Williams aligned about five to eight yards off the ball to give receivers cushion at the line of scrimmage.
In the Cardinals' scheme, Williams will be expected to play more man-to-man press coverage where he will align one to two yards off the ball and jam receivers at the snap.
Here's an example of the contrasting alignments cornerbacks have in Chavis' scheme and Bettcher's scheme.
Chavis' defense calls for a fair amount of man-to-man press coverage, and there are plenty of examples of Williams playing press coverage for Texas A&M. However, the Cardinals have indicated Williams' best skill as a corner is his ability to play with receivers at the line of scrimmage, which will minimize the amount of times Williams spends off the ball playing other coverages.
At least initially, Williams stands to play behind Justin Bethel or Jerraud Powers if the team decides to bring the veteran corner back through free agency. But if the Cardinals believe Williams can be effective against NFL receivers in man-to-man situations, Williams will have opportunities to see the field situationally because he's a superior athlete to many defensive backs already in the fold, and there aren't as many technical aspects involved in pressing receivers.
"We play a lot of cat (press man) coverage—you got that cat, and he can do that right off the bat," Arians said. "There’s not a whole lot of learning when it comes to that.”
Based on Keim and Arians' post-draft press conference, it appears the team is content with Williams operating as a press corner during his rookie season while using practice time and skill development periods to grow as a more complete cornerback. The Cardinals also have the benefit of patience with regards to Williams' growth, because Arians expects him to be an elite special teams player from day one.
"Just from a roster makeup the past couple of years, we have signed some one-year guys, some veteran guys who have played specific roles, but didn't have great upside or contributions on special teams," Keim said. "So I think we've kind of put our special teams and our cover units on the back burner which has affected us."
The Cardinals believe Williams has the traits to eventually develop into an every-down cornerback because of the versatility he provides in the defensive backfield. While Williams probably won't develop into a Matthieu-type asset who plays both safety and corner, Williams can play against taller outside receivers, as well as quicker, shiftier slot players.
"A guy who can play press and trail and reroute people in man, and again, to be able to play on the outside, which in this league is difficult," Keim said of Williams. "So many of the guys in this league are shorter, slow-footed guys who struggled and they have to play inside in the nickel, and here is a true guy with length and athleticism that can play outside and do all the things that we ask our corners to do in this defense."
Much like the team's selection of Robert Nkemdiche, the choice of Williams is far from a sure bet. Many draft experts pegged Williams as a day three selection and his lack of experience and slow reaction times to receiver movements could be difficult obstacles to overcome during his early years in the NFL.
Many players who enter the NFL without long-term experience at their position struggle to learn the finer details of their position such as proper footwork and different coverages, especially considering Williams still needs to learn how to manage key reads and how to become more physical with receivers at the snap.
While the Cardinals' organization is certainly excited about Williams' potential, it will take a significant amount of work from both parties to turn Williams into more than just a special teams contributor.