Is it fair to label Jonah Williams as a rookie?
Before Week 1 of this season, Williams had not played an organized down of football since the night of January 7th, 2019. It was Williams’ 44th and final game as a starting offensive tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide, and they got walloped by the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Fast forward 616 days. Williams takes the field for the first time as the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting left tackle. The first time as an NFL player. Rookies get one offseason to prepare themselves for action. Williams had the benefit of two thanks to a shoulder injury that wiped out his chances of playing in 2019.
But still, emulating experience without actual in-game reps? It doesn’t work like that. No matter how much strength you can put on with all the time in the world between you and doing your job for the first time as a professional, nothing matters until you hit the field for the first time.
It’s interesting to discuss in theory. Those theories get thrown out the window when you see the “rookie” play for the first time.
Williams ain’t no rookie.
Not because he technically accrued an NFL season last year. He simply doesn’t look the part. The guy’s not even 23 years old yet and he’s doing everything in his power to bring a basic dignity to the putrid stain that blemishes what is now a marketable enterprise; otherwise known as the Bengals’ offensive line.
Williams needed to be good. He still needs to be good. Great, even. Not only because his performance will directly impact the wellbeing of franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, but because of factors that have been in play even before Williams came into the picture.
The Bengals have had a bad offensive line for the better part of five years. This weekly series began and has kept going in part because of how much scrutiny and turmoil the unit has faced since the franchise has taken a downturn. And it’s not only because they allowed two bonafide studs in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leave for bigger paychecks, it’s because their replacements are still costing them to this day.
Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Christian Westerman, Alex Redmond, Cordy Glenn, John Miller, John Jerry, even Andre Smith for crying out loud. High draft picks, undrafted, and street free agents alike, they’ve all played the positions Whitworth and Zeitler excelled at for years together. None of them are with the team now, aside from Redmond who snuck his way back on the practice squad, but you get the point.
Williams represents the best chance to right one of those wrongs. And he’s not just been thrown into the fire right out of the gate; he’s been through Hell and back and Hell again. From 20 months of no football to playing against three of the best edge rushers in the NFL in a span of five days.
Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram II of the Los Angeles Chargers and Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns have all taken cracks at Williams thus far through two weeks, and they aren’t the only ones. In a special two-week edition of The Weekly Lineman, I broke down four pass blocking plays from each game to see how good Williams has been and what still needs to be ironed out of his game.
Let’s begin with Week 1.
The sight of Williams learning from his mistakes—completely correctable and potentially due to a lack of playing time mistakes—was a welcome one against the Chargers. Bosa and Ingram are going to get their wins every time they suit up; they’re both just too technically savvy. It was going to happen, and it didn’t get to Williams. His own technique stayed the course throughout the game and he made it out pretty clean.
The focus on pass protection was by design, as the Chargers’ pass rush impacted the outcome far more than their run defense. This was expected for the Bengals’ second game as well. The Browns, unfortunately, had more to offer than just the freakishly talented Garrett. Williams didn’t even go face-to-face with Garrett in pass protection until the very end of the first half, but the two eventually met several times as the Bengals attempted a second-half comeback.
There were a couple other reps from Week 2 I wanted to highlight as well:
Williams had hiccups in both games, but if you go rep-by-rep, you’ll find a more consistent version of him in Week 2. And that’s impressive considering the quick turnaround as well as Burrow taking nearly 30 more drop backs.
Growth of any kind is welcoming to see for an offensive lineman playing the first games of his career. To see improvement that can be easily traced back to as well as the same sound technique from nearly two years ago is about as good as it gets for someone like Williams.
And the added pressure, literally and figuratively, is showing no signs of phasing him.