The road to 2017 hasn’t been a clear one for Vince Williams.
With the 15th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Lawrence Timmons, who began his career as James Harrison’s backup at outside linebacker. By 2009, he had become the Steelers starter at inside linebacker and would retain that role for the next 8 seasons. During his 10 year tenure as a Steeler, Timmons put together 126 starts (including 112 straight from 2010-2016) while not missing a game since 2009 and only missing 2 during his career (both in 2009) 981 total tackles, 6 seasons with 100+ tackles (including 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016), 35.5 sacks, 43 passes defended, 12 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 13 forced fumbles.
At 31 years old, Timmons’ time with the Steelers came to an end this offseason after signing with the Miami Dolphins. Timmons had noticeably lost a step as he continues to age, but he will likely find a place in Miami as his career dwindles down.
In 2013, the Steelers used one of their two 6th-round draft picks to select Florida State inside linebacker Vince Williams. Hailing from the same Alma Mater as Timmons, Williams was expected to be nothing more than a depth inside linebacker and, at best, a two-down linebacker with plus run-stopping ability. After getting snubbed by not receiving an invite to the 2013 NFL Combine, Williams missed a golden opportunity to show his potential as an athlete on one of the biggest stages of the NFL offseason. A lack of a Combine invite paired with Williams’ below-average NFL size and lack of true “athleticism” led to his slide into the 6th-round.
Williams began his career as a surprise, starting 13 games during his rookie season in replace of the injured Larry Foote. After Foote departed for the Arizona Cardinals during the 2014 offseason, it appeared that Williams would step up to be the full-time starter next to Timmons in the middle in 2014.
That was until the Steelers used their 2014 1st-round pick on Ryan Shazier.
Almost immediately, Shazier was inserted into the starting lineup ahead of Williams and would remain there after showing flashes of the exciting playmaking ability that he showcased at Ohio State. From that point through the 2016 season, Williams would serve as the Steelers primary backup and rotational inside linebacker and would start just six games in relief of the oft-injured Shazier.
This has quickly changed heading into 2016.
Before the 2016 regular season kicked off, the Steelers rewarded Williams with a 2-year contract extension that translated to a 3-year, $5.5 million deal. However, this did not stop the Steelers from searching for further help during the 2017 offseason. After flirting with some high-profile free agent inside linebackers during the offseason, namely Patriots’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the Steelers ultimately signed no one. Following this, they chose to not pick an inside linebacker during the 2017 NFL Draft. This all made one thing extremely clear.
Vince Williams is their guy.
Williams’ playing style is that of a thumper due to his stocky, solid frame. There have always been questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL, as he lacks the desired athleticism that you look for in the position. But Williams’ work ethic and hard-nosed playing style will be more than welcome on the Steelers’ defense. Beyond that, I believe that Williams’ coverage skills are better than people have given him credit for. At worst, Williams will be no worse than Timmons in coverage, which realistically wasn’t that great over the past two seasons. But he can likely do much better than that. When dropping back into zone coverage, Williams reacts quickly and effectively when receivers and tight ends come into his zone. While his speed might prevent him from matching up one-on-one with fast receiving threats, the Steelers don’t need him to do that. Shazier’s athletic ability and safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis’ ability to play in the box mean that the Steelers can free up Williams to do other things for the defense. Williams has the ability to be an effective blitzer up the middle through the A-gap because of his smaller frame and quick burst off of the snap. The Steelers have been using different blitzing schemes and Williams can fill the role that Timmons served in that capacity as well.
Against the run, it is obvious that Williams is a highly effective run-stopper. On the snap, he excels in making quick, split-second decisions to come down and fill running lanes like a torpedo. Throughout his time with the Steelers, Williams has also shown that he can deliver a big blow, especially on special teams. During his time as a spot starter, he has flashed the potential production that he is capable of. During a two-game span in 2016 replacing Shazier due to injury, Williams tallied 25 tackles and 2 sacks, with 16 of those tackles and one sack coming in one game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Shazier and Williams have the potential to form a lightning and thunder pairing on the inside that could be exciting to watch.
While Williams’ performance on the field is solid, it’s off of the field where he really shines. He is an unquestioned vocal leader in the Steelers’ locker room. In this capacity, he often makes comments about aspects of the league that he feels passionately about. One moment that comes to mind is when Vontaze Burfict openly celebrated injuring Le’Veon Bell after a controversial hit during a 2015 matchup with the Bengals that led to Bell missing the rest of the season due to injury. Williams came out and made comments about the issue and continued to stand by his beliefs even after being criticized by the media. Williams is firm in his beliefs and is willing to defend his teammates and handle media responsibilities in a critical but positive manner.
In short, Williams is a big part of the locker room and overall Steelers chemistry on and off of the field, which is huge for a football team that is trying to make another run at a Super Bowl victory. But at the end of the day, retaining a player like him and giving him a chance to hold down a full-time starting spot is a chance that Williams will take and run with.
Some players are naturally gifted and take starting spots with ease. Others must strive each day to get an opportunity to prove themselves. Vince Williams is a walking example of what hard work, effort, and patience can do for a player on the football field when becoming a starter in the league. Just like late-round and undrafted players before him, Williams has shown how being a late pick and developing on special teams and shining in the chances that you’re giving can often pay off handsomely down the road.
Some people will miss Timmons in the middle. Some people will wish that the team had signed a high-profile free agent. Some people will wish that the Steelers had drafted an early-round inside linebacker.
But rest assured, Vince Williams will be perfectly fine as the Steelers starting inside linebacker.
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