FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Pepper Johnson expects even bigger things from “Big Cat.”
Leonard Williams, the Jets’ sixth overall pick in 2015, made his presence felt as a rookie, and Johnson believes the defensive lineman’s growth between Years 1 and 2 could lead to even more productivity.
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“He’s physically capable of being one of the better defensive linemen in the league,” the defensive line coach and three-time Super Bowl champion said Wednesday.
Williams is committed to seeing his stock rise.
Not too long ago, the stud lineman from USC was being heralded as the top prospect in his draft class. But even though he registered only three sacks last season, the 6-5, 300-pound Williams made an immediate impact. He was third among defensive tackles with 779 snaps, behind only the Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh (917) and the Rams’ Aaron Donald (862), according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Jets allowed only 4.8 yards per play with Williams on the field, compared to 5.9 yards when he was on the sideline.
Now the 21-year-old is anxious to see what he can do this season, when he’s hoping to get more sacks.
“I got to the quarterback a lot last year, but they were just hits, those aren’t the stats I’m looking for,” Williams said after the team’s second mandatory minicamp practice. “I want to get sacks. Those little seconds matter, getting to the quarterback.”
Forgive Williams for being a tad impatient. “I’m just used to having a lot of production,” he said.
He “wasn’t unhappy at all” with his statistics last year, but he surely wasn’t satisfied. He also said he learned a valuable lesson: NFL players are far more physical than those he faced in college.
“One thing that I’ve been working on is just getting off the ball and working on the edge,” Williams said. “I got away in college with just going down the middle of a guy a lot of times because I out-physicaled them. And I tried to do that last year and I realized you can’t do that in this league.”
Johnson admitted he’s not “a big fan of OTAs,” a time when classroom work sometimes can be a better indicator of a player’s progression than practice time without pads. But he’s already seen a change for the better in Williams.
“He actually matured a lot,” Johnson coach said. “Not saying that he was much of a kid when he came in. He came in with a maturity, a professionalism, but he just has taken it to the next level. I’m not going to handcuff him and I’m quite sure (coach) Todd (Bowles) and (defensive coordinator) Kacy (Rodgers) aren’t going to handcuff him.
“So, hopefully, the world is his.”
The Jets’ defensive line is missing one key member: Muhammad Wilkerson. The Pro Bowl end has yet to sign his franchise tag ($15.7 million), and it’s unclear whether he’ll attend training camp next month after skipping voluntary OTAs and minicamp. Wilkerson is still rehabbing a broken right leg and frustrated over the team’s failure to sign him to a long-term deal.
Johnson bypassed the hot-button topic of Wilkerson and chose to talk up the guys who are here. Such as Williams, who is out to prove he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in 2016. Quarterback hits, tackles, sacks — you name it, he wants more of them.
“I have a lot more hunger,” Williams said. “I just want more sacks. That’s the main thing.”