FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - When the Jets took the practice field Monday, rookie defensive end Leonard Williams headed over to join the injured players going through their rehab routines off to the side. It could have been a lot worse. He could have been lying on an operating table undergoing surgery to repair the right knee he injured during the Jets' preseason win over the Giants Saturday night.
The sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft admitted that was his fear when he first felt pain in his knee after another player rolled up the back of his leg during a first-half pass-rush situation.
"I didn't feel it when it immediately happened, but when I came to the sideline, I crouched down because I was a little tired," Williams said Monday. "That's when I felt a sharp pain in my knee. It kind of scared me.
"I never had any lower-body pain besides an ankle sprain, so when I first felt the pain behind my knee, I told our trainers about it. They X-rayed it during the game. But we got an MRI yesterday, and the results came back negative. They found out it was just a muscle strain. So now I'm doing a bunch of rehab."
The relief was palpable throughout Jets camp.
"I'll definitely be ready by Week 1," Williams said. "They said it should probably be five to seven days recovery."
Many considered the pass rusher from Southern Cal the steal of the draft when he fell to the Jets. His importance grew when training camp opened and it was revealed that defensive end Sheldon Richardson must serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Richardson likely faces additional league discipline stemming from an arrest during a traffic incident.
Williams is expected to replace Richardson as the starter alongside Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison for the season opener against Cleveland on Sept. 13. The rookie won't play in Thursday night's preseason finale against Philadelphia at MetLife Stadium, but he plans on being ready for the opener.
It sounds as if coach Todd Bowles is counting on having Williams ready to go against the Browns. "I was relieved, and I'm hopeful for Week 1," Bowles said of the injury. "He says he's starting to feel better by the day. When I see him running, I'll feel a lot better, but right now, he's walking pretty good and he's healing in good spirits."
Williams wasn't the only defensive lineman who gave Bowles cause for concern. Veteran tackle Wilkerson was limited early in training camp by a hamstring injury but came through well in his first test against the Giants.
"He felt good," Bowles said. "He had no setbacks."
The majority of Jets veteran starters won't play against the Eagles, but Bowles said the injury situation will force him to use some of his veterans. If Williams were healthy, he likely would have gotten more reps because he's a rookie still learning the NFL ropes.
But Williams said the relief of learning from the MRI that he has no torn knee ligaments far outweighed the inconvenience of missing the Eagles game.
"It's a little bit of a setback because I'm not able to practice," Williams said. "But it's not too much of a setback because they're not going full speed this week before the game. I'll be all right by the time the season opener starts."