'I was kind of stashed away': Lions' new DT Nick Williams capitalizes on a sliver of opportunity
Allen Park — The average career on an NFL player is under four seasons and a huge percentage of the league's players are clinging to the fringes, trying to keep those careers afloat.
That's essentially been Nick Williams' story since the day he was drafted. Selected in the seventh round in 2013 out of the Samford — a private school in Birmingham, Ala. with approximately 5,000 student — he missed his rookie season due to injury and played just one defensive snap in 2014.
In 2015, he carved out a rotational role in Kansas City, appearing in 15 games, but recording only nine tackles. He split time between two teams the next season, Kansas City and Miami, playing fewer than 100 snaps before finding himself out of the league in 2017.
Four seasons, three teams, 26 games, 17 tackles, zero sacks. This is what many NFL careers look like. They are the role players who quickly fade from our memories, assuming they ever made an impression in the first place. But Williams wouldn't give up. He didn't believe this was going to be his story as a professional athlete.
"(Thinking it's over) kind of comes across your head when you're in the thick of it," Williams admitted in a conference call on Saturday. "My family started like, 'Whatcha going to do, man? You need to get a job,' or something like that. But I always knew I'd get another opportunity and the Bears called and I capitalized on it."
Williams spent the past two seasons in Chicago and his impact was more of the same that first year. He was a healthy scratch most weeks, appearing in two games where he tallied two tackles. It wasn't until last season, when injuries ahead of him on the depth chart pushed him into action, things clicked.
In 2019, Williams appeared in all 16 games, starting five contests. He recorded 42 tackles, more than double his count the previous six seasons, and he also scored his first career sack. Then another and another. He finished the year with six, second on the team to Khalil Mack.
"I think just getting an opportunity," Williams said. "Opportunity is everything in this league. For the previous years, I was kind of stashed away, especially in Kansas City and Miami, I was playing behind (Ndamukong) Suh. Once I got to the Bears, you know, injuries happened last year. (My opportunity) kind of came at a cost, guys getting hurt, but the biggest thing was just getting an opportunity, getting the consecutive snaps and just let my play speak for itself."
Formerly viewed primarily as a run defender, Williams managed to rewrite his own scouting report last season. Now he is a balanced, versatile interior defender, capable of lining up anywhere along the line and impacting the play.
Playing with former Lion Ndamukong Suh in Miami, Williams said he learned a lot, but nothing more important than playing with the confidence you're going to dominate. And the past two seasons, Williams attached himself to the hip of Akiem Hicks, the 2018 Pro Bowler he had to replace in the lineup in 2019.
"He was just a guy, his play speaks for itself," Williams said. "He's a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle, so you kind of gravitate toward that and you have all kinds of respect for his game and the man he is off the field. He just believed in me from day one, loved my story. Everybody's story is not the same in the NFL, you know, ups and downs are going to come. He just kind of (clung) to me and I (clung) to him and I tried to soak up as much football as I could from him and tried to emulate that on the field."
That ability to emulate Hicks appealed to the Lions, who had pursued Hicks in free agency a few years back. And this week, they awarded Williams a two-year, $10 million deal with $4.5 million guaranteed to help fill the team's massive void at defensive tackle.
"I always imagined it, man, because I always kept my nose down, kept my head down and kept working hard," Hick said. "That's kind of what I've built myself on is working hard and doing your job and it will eventually pay off."
After working so hard for his moment, his payday, Williams admitted he did have a treat for himself in mind.
"I like to hunt with a couple of my old teammates, so I'm thinking about some hunting land," he said. "I'm just a down South country boy, so just some hunting land and mother nature and I'm good to go."
The Lions want Williams to hunt, too. Hunt quarterbacks, the way he did last year, helping solve one of the defense's biggest deficiencies from a year ago, interior pass-rush pressure.