The vast majority of NFL Draft analysts see defensive lineman Leonard Williams as a consensus top-5 pick. When you look at his measureables, it's easy to see why: he racked up 80 total tackles and seven sacks during his final season at USC, which is pretty hard to do as an interior defensive lineman.
He is long, strong, and fast at 6'5" and 300 pounds, with 34 5/8" arms. At USC, there were times when he had a J.J. Watt-like impact on the game, when he had influence on every play during which he was on the field.
There are also certain criticisms to Williams' game which will be addressed further down, but for the most part, he is a physical specimen and it is easy to see why so many think highly of him.
After turning on the tape of all available games from his senior season (thanks again DraftBreakdown.com), here is what I saw with respect to Leonard Williams' strengths and weaknesses as a player and how that translates to the NFL.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Williams is the way he uses his arms. Arm technique (and length) is crucial for defensive linemen because it allows them to distance themselves from blockers and then disengage to make the tackle. The dude is freakin' strong, and he was able to basically bench press just about every lineman across from him out of his way last year.
But more than that, the technique he used was superb as well. Like here:
He gets his hands on the inside of the blocker's chest, establishing control, and uses his long arms to keep the lineman away from him.
This is a recurring theme to Leonard Williams' game:
His ability to "long arm" defenders is simply devastating. He employs the "one arm is longer than two" philosophy and uses it to keep the offensive player from being able to get his hands on Leonard Williams, and Williams' body type is perfect for this.
And here it is in working practice against the run:
See how easy it is for him to fend off linemen?
There isn't much more to say about that. The above examples are why scouts value a player's bench press ability and arm length, and Williams passes both tests with flying colors.
Quick, smart hand use is another trait that is important for a defensive lineman and Leonard Williams certainly showed ability in that area. In the above examples, you can see how naturally Williams gets his hands into the chest of the offensive lineman.
But here, you can see his hand quickness:
He uses a quick swipe move to knock the lineman's hands aside, which enables him to get into the backfield quickly.
And this swim move here leaves the offensive player grasping at air:
Here's another sample of Williams' brute strength as he gets perfect hand placement into the lineman's chest and manhandles him:
Another J.J. Watt-esque swim move:
Issues getting off the ball?
The one major knock I've seen regarding Williams' play is his lack of explosiveness off the line of scrimmage.
Leonard Williams just doesn't seem to have the explosive first step I'm looking for in an elite DT.— Christopher Hansen (@ChrisHansenNFL) February 6, 2015
Been watching Leonard Williams today. Built like a tree, quick and powerful hands. I like him, but the explosiveness is concerning IMO.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) February 18, 2015
Pretty impressive how much disruption Leonard Williams creates despite putting himself at a disadvantage off the snap. Images to follow.— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) December 3, 2014
That first-step explosiveness is a valuable tool to have as a pass rusher simply because it adds another dimension to a player's game. In the NFL, any weakness in a player's game will be exploited. Leonard Williams won't be able to simply manhandle guys all the time like he did at USC.
If NFL offensive linemen know that he can't get off the ball quickly, they'll do things like "jump-set" Williams and attack him at the snap (instead of waiting for Williams to attack them) to take away his ability to bull-rush, since they know Williams won't be able to get around them with explosion.
Watching Williams in person and on tape, I can definitely see some merit to these comments. He doesn't always get upfield that quickly, and isn't as decisive as you'd like an elite defensive lineman to be.
Here he is, the last lineman off the line of scrimmage:
And check out this example:
This is a little more subtle, but he comes off the ball high and it takes a few steps for him to get up to full speed.
And this is not good:
Again, Leonard Williams doesn't explode off the line at the snap. He looks indecisive, and even though it looked like he could have beaten the lineman with a powerful inside move here, he lacks the aggression and commitment to any one move.
Same with this play:
Almost no upfield movement at the snap. That kind of football isn't fun to watch. These are the kind of plays the above (respected) analysts are talking about when they criticize Williams.
However, when people criticize Leonard Williams for not being consistently explosive off the snap, it is important to remember a few things:
1) He was asked to play the run and "two-gap" quite often (we'll get to those examples in the next section), as opposed to rushing upfield after the quarterback. This means he was supposed to attack the blocker instead of a specific gap, with the intent of controlling the two gaps on either side of the lineman. This entails more controlled play and power moves as opposed to explosive, lateral moves, since the goal isn't to get around the lineman into the backfield.
2) With USC's lack of depth across the board, their starters had to play an insane amount of snaps. I couldn't locate any site that keeps snap counts for NCAA football, but Williams probably played around 90% of USC's defensive snaps last season. This is an obscenely large amount, and it would therefore be understandable if Williams wasn't rocketing off the line of scrimmage at every snap.
In the NFL, usually defensive linemen will play somewhere in the 60%-70% range (with a few exceptions), meaning that Leonard Williams should be fresher next year than he was at any point in his last two seasons at USC. More energy for Williams should translate to better explosiveness in his play.
Active vs. Reactive
At this point in his career, Williams is more of a reactive player than he is an active (i.e. decisive) player. He is better in run defense when he waits for the offensive lineman to engage him than he is as a pass rusher where he is the one dictating the moves. He is so strong and plays with such good technique in the run game that he is capable of controlling whomever is in front of him.
This is precisely why Williams (94, top of the screen) is so good at two-gapping, as I mentioned earlier. Here's an example:
He uses his length again, and positions himself so he can disengage and make a play in the gap on either side of the offensive lineman blocking him.
You can see Leonard Williams peek over the left shoulder of the offensive lineman initially before disengaging and making the tackle in the other gap.
As you can see, Williams is simply a beast of a run defender. He plays with excellent leverage, technique, and is a phenomenal tackler. He can disengage from blocks seemingly at will.
Again, it is important to note the reactive tendency to his game. He was a consistently great run defender when he could use his strength and length to clog running lanes, but he was decidedly less consistent when it came to pass rushing in space with burst and quickness.
That doesn't mean he's incapable of being explosive
As mentioned earlier, Leonard Williams may have had his reasons for not flashing consistently as a pass rusher on tape. The ability that he did show on occasion suggests that these reasons are valid, and that he certainly has the capacity to get better in this area.
Look at the jump he gets here:
He's already engaged with the offensive lineman across from him while his fellow d-linemen are barely out of their stances.
He gets upfield pretty quickly here too:
The center was actually put in a pretty tough position here as he had to block Williams an entire gap away from him as the guard pulled for the kickout block on the opposite side, but Williams still had to make the play, and his quickness into the backfield here is very encouraging.
The guard gets victimized here:
I really like Leonard Williams' big first step here, as I noticed he sometimes has the tendency to take a lot of short, lateral, wasted steps on some of his pass rushes. His decisive movement combined with his handwork is awesome on this play.
Williams seems to "dance" a little too much when he's rushing the passer, which isn't good. But the good news is: that can be fixed. Legendary defensive line coach Jim Washburn was famous for coaching his players to make decisive moves instead of getting too fancy, and I think Williams can benefit from the same philosophy.
Here's some good decisiveness (and notice his low pad level too), and you can see the difference in how explosive he looks compared to earlier examples:
The decisiveness issue should at least improve as Williams becomes more polished and comfortable with different pass rushing moves. He's very good with his arms and hands, so it seems like more improvement in his footwork should help any perceived problems with his game.
Balance and leg protection
Last but not least, something cool I noticed about Leonard Williams' game is his awesome balance and (more) good technique using his arms. Defensive linemen, especially those as talented as Williams is, get cut-blocked a lot by offensive linemen (since it's easier than actually trying to block them regularly), and Williams was consistently awesome at staying on his feet.
Defenders are supposed to use their hands to protect their legs from getting cut out from underneath them--just as Williams does here. That's perfect, and just another positive aspect to his game.
Leonard Williams' physical attributes are impressive, but his upper-body technique is what makes him a fantastic football player right now. His straight-arming is lethal, but he also has the quick hands to pull off a mean swim/swipe move. He consistently uses good hand placement, and his strength enables him to shed blocks like few can. He is versatile, and I could see him fitting in at basically any position in a 4-3 or defensive end in a 3-4 (he's probably too small to play 3-4 nose tackle though).
He has impressive straight-line speed and his lower body is strong, but -- in my humble opinion -- he could use some work in his pass rushing game. More efficient steps and decisiveness I feel would go a long way in helping his explosiveness. But even though this aspect of his game isn't perfect, I do think scouts who knock him for it aren't taking his role in USC's defense nor his heavy workload enough into account.
While today's brand of football values pass rushing (especially of the interior variety) over run-stopping ability, I do think Williams will improve as a rusher in the NFL due to better coaching and more rest. He clearly has the physical tools to do so.
An NFL player-comparison I recently thought of is Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals -- Williams is a little smaller, but he brings the same kind of presence (length, strength, great at disengaging from blocks in run defense) to the football field. Campbell was raw coming out of the University of Miami, but he has become a dominant force and a cornerstone of the Cardinals' defense, much likeWilliams can do. Campbell's first step quickness isn't elite either, but he uses his body and strength extremely well, as Williams is capable of doing.
In terms of his best fit, I did an analysis on that subject a couple months ago here, but I will say that I love him on the Jacksonville Jaguars. He could step in right away and play the Red Bryant 5-technique role, where he would be a dominant run defender from the very beginning. The Jaguars' defensive line is actually relatively deep, so Williams would stay fresh and could be part of a rotation on passing downs on the interior as well.
The bottom line is that Williams will go and help out any NFL team right away. From watching him, he is as close to a guarantee as you can get in football, and he should quite deservingly end up being a top-five pick this year.