After he spent more than a little time of his latest game in the other team's backfield, Leonard Williams exchanged postgame pleasantries with some members of the Dolphins late Saturday night.
"Some of the O-linemen came up to me and told me to keep it up and they would vote for me," Williams told Eric Allen on Tuesday before this year's Pro Bowl voting was revealed. "It's cool to be a young guy and get that type of respect from older guys who've been playing for a long time."
Obviously not quite enough opponents, coaches and fans cast ballots for "Leo" since he was named first alternate at defensive end for the AFC All-Stars that will be heading to this season's game in Orlando. But with players declining their berths due to injury or Super Bowl participation, there's still a really good chance he'll be playing in his first Pro Bowl.
Either way, Williams is fairly happy and optimistic to be in this limbo. Teammate Muhammad Wilkerson was a first alternate who didn't play in the Pro Bowl after the 2013 season but then was selected for last year's game. And also participating in last year's game were C Nick Mangold and RB Chris Ivory, who both were initially first alternates at their positions.
"I was a little disappointed that I was an alternate, especially knowing I had just as good stats as guys that made it," he told me in the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center locker room after today's practice. "But at the same time, I count my blessings. I'm glad I got that far. It's definitely a huge step for me in my career, so I'm proud."
He should be. Despite the Jets' struggles as a team this season, Williams has been one of the bright spots on the defense. His seven sacks and 23 QB hits both lead the team, and add to that his 14.0 tackles for loss/no gain and his 21 total tackles at or behind the line also lead the squad. His 78 tackles are second on the entire unit behind perennial leader David Harris' 94. He's been called for just one penalty, a neutral zone infraction at Miami, while drawing four flags on opponents, including two holds.
But two points bear stressing for this still very young man — he doesn't turn 23 till next June. One is that he's made rapid progress in his pro game ever since arriving as the Jets' sixth overall pick of the '15 draft.
"The fans see the stats and the TFLs and the sacks and that's the reason they vote for you," he said. "But to me, it's just overall, play in and play out, just knowing what I'm doing. I'm playing faster, I'm reacting faster. I know how to play certain blocks better. I know how to pass-rush better. Overall, I've just become more of a well-oiled machine."
An example of that is Williams' growing repertoire of counter moves.
"I'm not slowing down," he said. "Last year I remember sometimes if my first move wouldn't work, I would stop and look around and stuff like that. Now I'll throw a move, I'll throw a second move, I'll throw a third move. I'll just keep going. That's a little bit like how I was in college. Being a rookie, I just didn't feel as comfortable last year. I think my biggest stride was becoming more comfortable."
And the second point to make about Williams is that when this difficult team season is over and we move on to 2017, he will be one of the pillars on which the Jets' road back will be built.
"It's hard to look at individual statistics when it's such a team sport, so you care about the team," he said. "But at the same time, it definitely helps to be able to see success in myself and my career and be able to try and spread that with the rest of my team."
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