Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we'll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.*
There is no debating that Jairus Byrd was an important part of Buffalo's secondary the last five seasons. With a pair of Pro Bowls to his credit, Byrd was a ball hawk for the Bills defensive backfield. In the end losing him to a big pay day seemed inevitable, but Buffalo GM Doug Whaley chose to invest in a player already on the roster, who may eventually prove to be a better all-around talent at safety than Byrd was.
In 2013 Aaron Williams very quietly tied Byrd for the team lead in interceptions (along with Kiko Alonso and Jim Leonhard) was second on the team in tackles and second in pass breakups to only Leodis McKelvin. Now set to inherit Byrd's free safety role and step forward as a leader on the defensive unit here are four reasons why Williams is poised to excel in 2014 and perhaps merit consideration for a Pro Bowl nod of his own.
In his transition year from cornerback to safety last fall Aaron Williams looked surprisingly comfortable making the switch. His anticipation skills and angles looked on point for the most part in training camp and the preseason. They were all encouraging signs as to where he could take his new role on defense. Then at the tail end of the preseason Stephon Gilmore fractured his wrist. Ron Brooks broke his foot in Week 1 and Leodis McKelvin was subsequently injured in Buffalo's Week 3 game at the Jets. Williams out of necessity was moved back to cornerback.
He would start the next four games at cornerback before making his last seven starts at safety. The flip-flopping back and forth between positions compromised Williams' growth at the safety position. Now with newfound depth at cornerback with the free agent addition of Corey Graham and fourth-round draft choice Ross Cockrell and Ron Brooks playing some of his best football this past spring it looks like Williams will be able to stay put at free safety for a full 16-game slate.
That continuity at one position, especially in a new scheme under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, will serve Williams' game well.
When Aaron Williams first arrived in Buffalo he was a typical rookie. Often messing around with other younger teammates on the roster, the former second-round pick lacked maturity and deferred to more experienced players to take the lead. He also struggled with his self-confidence on the field and at times would dwell on plays where he was beat in a one-on-one matchup.
Over the past two seasons however, he's developed a close friendship with veteran Fred Jackson, who has had a positive influence on Williams. Jackson has counseled him on everything from what it means to be a professional to leadership. A visible change in Williams approach to the game was noticeable last season. So noticeable in fact that it convinced the Bills brass that they could rely on him as a future leader of the team.
"After the season we had a comprehensive off-site with Coach Marrone and Doug Whaley and Jim Monos, our Director of Player Personnel, and really laid out in detail our master plan moving in to the future," said Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon at the time Williams signed a contract extension in March. "Obviously extending a player like Aaron was a priority for us and we're thrilled that he's going to be with us long term."
"We talked at the end of the season that they're going to give me the responsibility of leading this defense to where it used to be," said Williams. "I like being in control and making sure everybody is in the same position and the right position. Putting people in position to make plays. It's being back there as a quarterback and it's something I grasped in the last season and Jairus (Byrd) taught me a lot in how to control the defense and how guys can trust me to put them in the right position."
In Jairus Byrd the Bills had a Pro Bowl caliber safety, who was as good as there is in the league when it came to range in the deep half of the field. There aren't many who can track long balls and turn them into interceptions better than Byrd. To his credit Byrd also improved his run support and was a factor when it came to forced fumbles. Where things got tricky with Byrd's game was when it came to coming down to the line of scrimmage to cover a slot receiver or a tall, rangy tight end.
Byrd was not called upon to handle those responsibilities, but that is something Williams will be asked to do at times in Jim Schwartz's defense. Williams coverage background as a cornerback combined with his strength, size and length make him ideally suited to handle the kind of coverage assignments that are becoming more and more commonplace for todays' NFL safeties.
"Aaron has shown all of those qualities," said Schwartz. "He can range from the middle of the field. He can cover a guy man to man. He's got those hybrid corner/safety skills. And the one thing that probably impressed me the most was his physical play. He's a tough guy. I thought last year was the year you started to see what Aaron could do. He could make an impact on the game. An interception, a big hit, a blitz, he can do all those things so we're excited to have him."
Though Buffalo's defensive scheme might be new again this year not much changes for a secondary. Cover two is still cover two and three deep is still three deep. Calling the pre-snap checks might take some getting used to for Williams, but what won't is who he'll be playing with.
While much is made of the talent on Buffalo's defensive line, and rightly so with three Pro Bowl players and a 10-sack end in Jerry Hughes, the team's secondary is dripping with talent and depth. Buffalo's top two corners are former first round picks with a handful of other home grown draft choices dotting the roster. Perhaps most important is the players projected to start in the secondary have all played together for two seasons. McKelvin has been in the fold since 2008, Williams and Da'Norris Searcy hail from the 2011 draft class and Stephon Gilmore was the top choice in 2012.
Williams has a keen awareness as to how both McKelvin and Gilmore play their coverage assignments on the outside. In addition he's worked with Searcy and Robey in subpackages when Searcy served as a hybrid linebacker/safety and Robey as the nickel corner.
"We're fine. We have great chemistry," said an assured Williams. "We keep in contact even now through the offseason, checking on each other, making sure everybody is doing their job and working out. I just let the guys know when we come back the standard is going to move up even higher now.
"We set the limit last year finishing second in interceptions. We wanted to be first, and unfortunately we didn't get that. So now we're going for first in every stat on defense. I told the guys enjoy your time off, but when we get back get ready to work."
The more one hears Williams talk about his role at safety the more convinced one becomes that it'll be his home for many seasons in Buffalo's secondary.
"I do feel comfortable out there," said Williams. "Moving to safety is probably one of the best things to happen in my career."