He was widely seen as a difference making player and a leader in Buffalo’s young secondary. But a Week 2 neck injury last season put a completely different outlook on his NFL career. Fully recovered following neck surgery,
Williams participated fully in spring practices. It was his first time back on the field with his teammates since the injury. Being away for so long Williams relished being back in the lineup.
“It just felt great to be on the field,” Williams told Buffalobills.com. “To put those cleats on and put that helmet on and running around. Doing what I love to do for a living is amazing. The words can’t describe what it’s like to be out there. Making plays is what I want to do. It’s my job. It’s what I’m supposed to do. Being able to play another year I’m just enjoying the experience.”
Williams was viewed as a cornerstone player in Buffalo’s defense in year one under Rex Ryan last season. The Bills head coach doesn’t view things any differently in 2016. As much as the Bills safety wants to deliver, the perspective of his career has been inexorably changed.
“Is it always in the back of my mind? Of course. It’s my neck,” said Williams. “It’s something that’s life threatening, but at the same time if I wasn’t 100 percent sure of being out there I wouldn’t be out there. I’m out there and whatever happens, happens. I believe things happen for a reason. With that being said I just have to enjoy what I have in front of me right now.”
His play on the field did not appear to miss a beat during OTA and minicamp practices. Williams turned in a couple of interceptions and was communicating with teammates pre-snap to ensure any checks or shifts were executed before the play. But Williams himself has said more than once he won’t know for sure about the future of his playing career until he takes that first big hit later this summer.
The safety says he doesn’t spend time thinking about what that first hit might be like, but his subconscious has more than once.
“I’ve had a few dreams. A couple of good and a couple of bad,” Williams said. “But when I’m between the lines I’m more focused on my job and my responsibility and where I need to be so the scheme and the defense can work together. If one person slacks off on their responsibility the defense doesn’t play out the way we want it to.”
There’s no debate that Williams still puts the performance of the team ahead of himself. He clearly wants to reassure teammates that they can count on him despite the severity of the injury he sustained in 2015. There has also been an effort on his part to alter his style of play.
Bills assistant secondary coach Ed Reed has been essential in convincing Williams that he doesn’t have to be a lights out hitter to be a quality safety in the NFL.
“We have so many talks, him and I, and just talking to him about longevity and how you get there,” said Reed. “I didn’t play 12 years for nothing. I had a nerve impingement, still have it, in my neck so you have to play the game a certain way. Being able to talk to him and relate to him on stuff I’ve been through is very helpful. I think he’s taking heed to it.”
The coach and pupil have watched some of Williams’ game film together to seek out examples where he can protect himself while still being an effective player.
“I’ve watched myself and compare how I played then to how I want to play now,” Williams said. “There were a lot of instances where I didn’t have to tackle a guy high here, I didn’t have to deliver the biggest blow ever. I may not have had to drill someone with my shoulder like I did. A tackle is a tackle no matter how you do it whether it’s a big hit or a shoelace tackle. As long as I get the guy down and prevent him from scoring that’s what I need to do.
“I need to get out of that mindset of always trying to blow up receivers left and right. Yeah everybody loves big hits, but in the end it’s about your health. Just getting my responsibilities down that’s all I need to focus on.”
Williams tried to simulate some of those adjustments to his game in the spring practices when the opportunities presented themselves in team work periods, even though they were non-contact.
“There are some adjustments with how I want to play and I’m getting with my coaches to help me to play in such a way where I’m a lot healthier, stay in games longer and finish the season with 16 games and hopefully more,” he said.
There’s no question that Williams has the ability to be a playmaker in Buffalo’s secondary. He has a clean bill of health. But football always presents a risk. A risk that Williams experienced first-hand. Reed doesn’t want to speak for Williams, but having been through a neck injury in his career, he knows there are still hurdles for Buffalo’s free safety to clear.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Reed. “Once we put on pads we’ll see how he’s moving around with that too. So it’s a process because it’s something you think about, especially in this day and age with guys retiring. I’m sure it’s something that’s on his mind at times.”
“When it’s time to really come down to test the neck that’s when we’ll get serious and I’ll take things slowly,” said Williams. “I think the real test will come in preseason. Coach Ryan wants us to have some kind of collision during camp, so I’m sure at some point when we have some type of thud session in a period. I’ll probably test it out here and there, but overall I feel like it’s 100 percent back. My neck won’t be an issue this year.”
If that proves to be the case, Buffalo’s defense will be a major beneficiary.