Joe Burrow will grab all the headlines coming out of Bengals training camp and rightfully so. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick is set not just to become the face of the franchise but perhaps battle with Patrick Mahomes as the future star of the NFL. However, while not as flashy as the new man in command, it is another first-round pick in Jonah Williams that might be the name that stands out for the Bengals in 2020.
It’s easy to forget Williams after a lost season. The 11th overall pick in 2019 never saw action in his rookie campaign due to suffering a shoulder injury that would keep him sidelined all season. Fully healthy, it’s time to see what the Alabama product can do as the future blindside protector in the Jungle.
Jonah Williams has a chance in 2020 to put to bed a bad recent history of tackles in Cincinnati
For Williams, 2019 was a season of listening. For the Bengals, it was a lost cause. Williams sat on the sidelines learning from afar and sitting in meetings to understand the role. In return, the Bengals will basically have two rookies playing at the offense’s top priorities to begin the decade.
The Bengals will need Williams to shine early. Not only will a sound left tackle help Burrow flourish early, but it will justify the selection of the Crimson Tide standout. Cincinnati has been searching for their left tackle of the future since Andrew Whitworth’s departure in 2016.
“I see it as an opportunity, and that motivates me,” Williams said earlier this month. “I want to prove them right and the Bengals, the team, the [Brown] family and give everyone a great left tackle for years to come. That’s obviously been my goal since the day I came here.”
SEC tackles in the “Who Dey” nation has been a consistent concern over the past decade. Alabama’s Andre Smith suffered multiple injuries and was better suited on the right side during his six-year span. Cedric Ogbuehi joined the roster from Texas A&M with a freshly-torn ACL. It would limit his flexibility and ultimately lead to bust status. Even after trading for Cordy Glenn, problems occurred both with his on and off-field production.
Williams could be cut from a different cloth despite playing in the same conference. One of the more complete tackle prospects in a decade, he’ll come from a pro-ready system in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Throw in his All-American status, and there’s little to deny the Bengals’ optimism.
“When you’re not full speed it’s easy to go through the motions,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said. “Jonah’s not that guy. Jonah does it the right way every single time. And he’s a great example for the other players to watch when they see the tape.”
Williams knows what it means to win, either as a team or individually
Williams is a winner based on his national championship status, but also one in the solo category. Complete pass protection skills alone made him the top tackle in 2019’s draft class, but his run zone blocking skills solidified that status. In an offense with holes in both areas, Cincinnati should love the selection.
A three-year starter for the Crimson Tide, Williams is versatile at either tackle position. His final season was the best as the 6-foot-5 tackle didn’t allow a single sack. Combine that with his first two seasons, and Williams gave up just two sacks during his entire stint.
Run blocking was his weakness, yet still valuable for Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide finished first in rushing in conference play with Williams on the right side in 2016 (3,675), and second in both seasons on the left. Across all three seasons, Alabama scored 102 touchdowns on the ground, thanks to Williams’ services.
Early in practice, Williams has made his presence felt. According to Geoff Hobson of the team’s official site, the second-time rookie has excelled against the edge rushers while improving inside with his run blocking.
“It’s a nice start for guy that was out for a year,” Bengals Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan said of Williams. “He’s showing what we thought he was.”
A lot rides on Williams play in 2020
Williams can be successful without Burrow. The same cannot be said if you flipped the names. Despite his massive success at LSU, the Bayou Bengal isn’t playing behind an All-American offensive line. He’s far from it with the 31st unit in Pass Block Win Rate.
Worst case scenario, Williams is best suited to play the right tackle role long-term, sticks it out and learns on the left, and eventually moves when the team drafts another tackle next April. It also remains possible that the concerns of his arm length and frame will limit him to move inside as an interior lineman for his future. However, both of those are far-fetched ideas after watching just several minutes of Williams’ tape.
The Bengals would be foolish to expect their oft-injured lineman play at an All-Pro level immediately. That said, this is their best chance to find the successor to Whitworth long-term. Every quarterback is better with a lead blocker, so expect Williams if healthy to play that role in Burrow’s early success.