The book on P.J. Williams is that the New Orleans Saints may have gotten a steal.
Scouts and analysts around the league pegged Williams as a high second-round pick — perhaps a late first-rounder in a draft deep with cornerbacks. By the time the 78th pick rolled around, Williams was supposed to be long gone.
Disappointment sometimes sets in for a prospect who falls below his expected slot. After every draft, in nearly every NFL city, a rookie vows to make the teams who passed on him pay, no matter the circumstances of his slip.
Williams is not one of those rookies.
“My dream wasn’t to go in the first round,” he said. “My dream was to make it here.”
Williams entered draft weekend prepared to fall down draft boards.
The Florida State product was arrested April 3 on suspicion of driving under the influence, although the charges were later dropped because of a lack of evidence — a decision announced just three days before the draft. In October, he also reportedly left the scene of an accident before returning 20 minutes later, according to The New York Times.
Williams spent the three weeks after his arrest meeting with NFL teams in an effort to reassure them he wouldn’t be a character concern, but he also knew the incidents might hurt him on draft day. In the end, Williams decided not to dwell on what might have been.
“You’re going to think your level of talent is higher than others perceive it, but I was just happy,” Williams said. “It was a great opportunity for me. I knew what could have happened, pretty much when it happened, but I was just excited to get drafted by an organization like this.”
New Orleans may end up being a perfect fit of player and need.
The Saints need a new slot cornerback, a position New Orleans considers a starter in the pass-happy NFL and a spot Williams played during his first two seasons at Florida State, although he moved primarily to the outside as a junior in 2014. During the Saints’ rookie minicamp, Williams showed he has the capability to contribute inside.
“P.J. has picked things up,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I do think he is a guy that will have a chance to compete at the nickel.”
Williams offers a level of physicality that can bring an added dimension to the role of the fifth defensive back. At 6-foot and 196 pounds, Williams is built like a safety, and he built a reputation at Florida State as a sure tackler who can play at and around the line of scrimmage. If a team can put a physical player in the slot, it opens up the ability to blitz and create turnovers from that spot on the field, similar to the way the Arizona Cardinals use Tyrann Mathieu or the way the Green Bay Packers used to deploy Charles Woodson.
New Orleans’ defense already has shown the flexibility to use a more physical player as the nickel cornerback. In 2014, the Saints used strong safety Kenny Vaccaro in the slot on 108 snaps, and Vaccaro limited the opposition to a 68.8 quarterback rating against him in that position.
“I definitely consider myself a pretty good tackler, and I definitely work pretty hard at that,” Williams said. “I want to get better at all the other things I’m not as good at, so I’m really just working on being a complete corner, but tackling is something I’m good at.”
Williams is on to something.
No matter how well he tackles, Williams has to earn playing time in the slot by proving he can lock down receivers in coverage. A natural in press-man coverage, Williams developed a reputation during the draft process as a player who sometimes struggles in zone coverage, and after the Saints’ rookie minicamp, Williams pointed out that the slot cornerback sometimes has to play off the ball instead of bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage.
With that in mind, Williams has set out to learn as much as he can from Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner, the Saints’ entrenched veterans at cornerback. Like Williams, both players have made their names in press coverage, but their experience allows Williams to draw on a deep well of knowledge.
“Definitely guys I can learn from, be able to play with and get my game better,” Williams said. “I’ve met with those guys, worked out with them and stuff, and they’re giving me tips.”
Williams knows he won’t be handed a role. Fifth-round pick Damian Swann, free-agent signee Kyle Wilson and CFL import Delvin Breaux, among others, could factor into the mix inside. Williams also sees an opportunity with a team that addressed its problems at cornerback aggressively this offseason.
“I see all the guys we have, and there are some good guys,” Williams said. “I know (the Saints secondary) didn’t do as good as they wanted to last year.”
And if Williams can blossom into a key contributor as a rookie, he’ll worry even less about where he might have been picked on draft night.