P.J. Williams spent his entire rookie season hoping for delayed gratification.
Drafted in the third round last May by a Saints team intent on revamping the cornerback position, Williams instead became the position’s first casualty, placed on injured reserve before the final preseason game with a torn hamstring that torpedoed his training camp and sunk his entire rookie year along with it.
Instead of making an instant impact, Williams had to watch as the injuries spread, paring down the deep group by half its depth chart by the end of the season.
Williams responded by turning disappointment into preparation. He went to every meeting and every game, trying to soak up as much information as he could without being able to test himself on the field.
“I got to learn so much, pretty much how things work around here, a lot of stuff with my position, a lot of technical things,” Williams said. “I got to learn all the plays, so coming in here and knowing everything is definitely a plus for me, and just being able to know how things work.”
Bouncing back from his rookie setback was no small task.
A torn hamstring in training camp rarely costs a player an entire season. Williams’ hamstring injury, on the other hand, simply wouldn’t go away. Kept off the field for much of the early portion of the Saints’ sessions at The Greenbrier, he returned in time to practice and play against the New England Patriots in the second preseason game.
Then the hamstring flared again.
“Definitely frustrating,” Williams said. “No one wants to get injured, and no one wants to not be able to play for a whole year. That’s pretty much the longest time I’ve ever had without playing football.”
With so little time to prepare and the possibility that Williams might be battling the injury all year, New Orleans decided to place Williams on injured reserve.
“Ultimately, I felt like it was a good decision,” Williams said. “They didn’t want me to go into the season with an injury and it be lingering all year, especially with it being my rookie year. I got to learn a whole lot.”
Williams also found a mentor.
By watching every game closely, Williams realized that he shares some of the same traits as Delvin Breaux, the Saints’ silver lining in a difficult year at cornerback. Breaux, who’s at his best playing a physical style of press-man coverage, established himself as the team’s top corner and burst into the limelight as one of the NFL’s up-and-coming players at the position.
Williams responded by permanently attaching himself to Breaux’s hip pocket inside the Saints’ team facility.
“That’s my guy,” Breaux said. “Always asking me questions, always in my ear, even though I’m only a second-year player, but he’s like, ‘I want to do it, too. You had a great year last year, I want to be out there. I want to learn what you did to be great like that.’ ”
Breaux has answered every question, usually with a simple reminder: Williams has to make sure he stays healthy this season. A player can become prone to hamstring injuries if he doesn’t pay close attention to the big muscle at the back of his legs, and Williams has spent plenty of time trying to make sure that the injury that cost him his rookie season will not become a problem again.
“With a hamstring injury, there’s a lot of things you can do,” Williams said. “Strengthen your hamstring, strengthen your back muscle, your core, it’s all connected. So you work on that, make sure you get in and get treatment, there’s a lot of things you can do.”
Williams is finally getting to unleash everything he’s learned now.
The early returns are promising. The Florida State product turned in an impressive performance in the Saints’ first organized team activities this week, capping it off on Thursday by running step-for-step with a receiver deep down the sideline, pinning the receiver to the sideline and then leaping to bat away a deep ball delivered by Luke McCown.
“I would say he is a lot farther along (than we expected),” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “This week he’s received some good reps, he’s had some good snaps. He’s in real good shape. This offseason has been good for him.”
A healthy, productive Williams would be a key cog for the New Orleans secondary. Even with Keenan Lewis on his way back from his own season-ending injury to partner with Breaux, Williams could still fill a key role, competing with fellow 2015 pick Damian Swann and veteran Kyle Wilson for the nickel role, and provide a capable replacement in case anything happens to Lewis or Breaux.
For the moment, all Williams can do is stay focused on the task at hand.
His newfound mentor is a good example of how a newcomer can parlay an impressive summer into something special in the fall.
“Keep grinding, and keep continuing to make those plays,” Breaux said. “Not just now, but when the lights go on in the Dome.”
Those lights. Williams has spent almost a whole year waiting to show what he can do under them.