Leonard Williams Is the NFL Draft’s Safest Pick

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Leonard Williams was hobbling around the Stanford Stadium turf prior to USC’s 13-10 win over the Cardinal last September. There was chatter just before kickoff he might be unable to play.

And yet, with a bum ankle and shoulder that was never quite 100 percent during the 2014 season, Leonard Williams rolled off 11 tackles and a sack against an offensive line that includes Andrus Peat — like Peat, a coveted prospect in this week’s NFL draft — and Kyle Murphy, the next in Stanford’s long line of talented blockers.

“To see him fighting through sets a great example for his teammates,” USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said following the Stanford win.

Williams’ willingness to not just play, but thrive with injury resonated with his team. It also speaks to the kind of player an NFL franchise will get when it takes Williams in the first few picks Thursday.

Williams will not go No. 1, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn advocates. This is still a quarterback’s league, as damn near every NFL pundit in front of a television camera or behind a microphone will tell you, and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston is destined for that top overall pick.

Be that as it may, one would be hard-pressed to argue that any individual player in the NFL last season made a more sizable impact than defensive end J.J. Watt. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — McGinn points out Williams compared himself to Watt in draft combine interview.

Setting Leonard Williams’ bar at the same level Watt reached in 2014 is unfair; Watt was historically good. But the GM who takes Williams can be assured he’ll make the effort to reach that level each week, on an injured ankle or completely healthy.

“I feel like I can improve a little bit,” he said in the days after what was statistically one of his best games at USC. That’s no insignificant distinction, either, given Williams won numerous accolades in his three years as a Trojan.

Not that those accolades fueled him: Williams shrugged when I asked him if he’d ever given thought to trying to become the first defense-exclusive player to win the Heisman Trophy.

“I mean, I’m a defensive tackle,” he said.

Ndamukong Suh was a finalist and Aaron Donald received votes in 2013, I pointed out. Williams shrugged.

“Well, that’s cool,” he said.

A shrug nicely crystallizes Williams’ pursuit of individual praise. His willingness to play across just about every spot on the defensive line in his career at USC also captures his ultimate motivation.

Sure, Leonard Williams could have produced gaudier numbers standing up and playing exclusively on the edge. But his ability to beat tackles and tight ends with speed as an end, or overpower guards playing a 3-technique was too valuable for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to let go to waste.

Williams has not just an ability to play anywhere along the defensive line, but a desire to. He told me on passing downs, he prefers playing the interior, then going to the edge on rushing downs.

There’s no drop-off if he’s at end or tackle, a skill that can help an NFL club address more than just one need.

Leonard Williams may not be the No. 1 pick; he may not have the greatest upside of any of this weekend’s draftees. But of all the prospects NFL franchises can select, none are as surefire as him.