The Year 3 breakout has become a mainstream talking point in the NFL. We see it happen for several players every single year. The Cincinnati Bengals last year witnessed it from Jessie Bates III.
They’re hoping to see it again this year with Jonah Williams.
As the first draft pick in the Zac Taylor era, Williams’ professional career started off as rocky as Taylor’s head coaching career did. Two years later, there’s definitive evidence that Williams belongs as a starting left tackle in this league. The Bengals need him to prove that over the course of a now 17-game slate.
The front office had chances this offseason to challenge Williams for his spot at left tackle. There were opportunities to move him to right tackle. But they made the choice to keep the 23-year old at his natural position so he could protect Joe Burrow’s blindside; a job that has only increased in significance.
It’s a job that Williams is absolutely capable of doing.
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Experience: three years
Williams is in the third year of his four-year, $17,630,166 rookie contract. He’s set to make $2,097,742 in base salary and count for $4,808,227 against the salary cap this year.
After moving from Georgia to the city of Folsom, California as a young teenager, Williams quickly developed into one of the highest-rated tackle prospects in the country. He became a five-star recruit and had aspirations of playing college ball closer to his original home. Over 20 years prior, Bengals legend Willie Anderson chose Auburn over Alabama. In 2016, Williams did the opposite and committed to the Crimson Tide, despite Auburn offering him first.
Auburn and the rest of the SEC would quickly come to know Alabama’s new o-lineman. Williams started off at right tackle while Cam Robinson was still holding down the left tackle spot. Williams moved to the left side and had two two very productive years blocking for Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. With 44 starts under his belt in just three years, he proceeded to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Bengals drafted Williams over every other lineman in the 2019 class with the 11th overall pick. Taylor told reporters after the selection that Williams was drafted to continue playing left tackle. Unfortunately, that plan would have to be put on hold.
Two months after the draft, the team learned that Williams’ labrum in his left shoulder was torn. He had season-ending surgery performed a month before his first training camp was supposed to begin.
Williams’ spot at left tackle was waiting for him in 2020. He started the first seven games of the season and played very well for his first true season. A neck injury suffered in Week 7 took him out of commission for two weeks, but he returned for three more games before a freak knee injury landed him on Injured Reserve yet again in Week 13.
Injuries have been the story for Williams thus far, but in the weeks he’s been healthy, he’s shown to be an athletic pass-blocker with an apt understanding of angles and hand usage.
Outlook for 2021
The base for Williams is very much set, now it’s time for him to build on it. Williams is reliable in pass protection, but has room to improve in terms of timing and placement. Inconsistencies in these areas caused him to struggle at times against some of the game’s top edge rushers. Even with his occasional mishaps, he was still proficient compared to most other left tackles.
Run blocking is where the Bengals need to see Williams make his biggest leap forward. He was notably average for most of 2020 and had the second-worst Adjusted Blown Block average on the team (4.8%) per Sports Info Solutions.
Technique can improve by way of gaining experience, but coaching also matters a ton. How much was Williams’ development stunted because of former offensive line coach Jim Turner? Frank Pollack replaced the polarizing Turner as Williams’ new position coach, and the transition should yield better play from the former first-round pick in 2021 and beyond.
100%. Williams wasn’t backed by Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin just from him to be cut this offseason. Even if he completely stinks it up during training camp and the preseason, letting him go would cost the Bengals nearly $6 million in dead money this year. This time next year, there may even be a conversation about extending Williams.
A strong 17-game season from Williams would surely help kickstart those negotiations.