INDIANAPOLIS - if there is one player who can challenge quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to be taken with the No. 1 pick in the draft, it’s Southern California defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
"I’m shooting for that No. 1 spot," Williams said at the NFL Scouting Combine. He said that after being asked about getting drafted by the Oakland Raiders at No. 4 overall. The difference between those two draft spots is about $2.5 million.
"I have high expectations for myself and so do my coaches," Williams said. "That’s just the way I’ve been coached for a long time. It would mean a lot to me and my family to go as high as possible. If No. 1 is the spot, I’d love to be there."
In a draft where a quarterback is expected to be the No. 1 pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams may be a long shot for the top spot. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the first pick of last year’s draft, making him the third defensive player to get picked at No. 1 since 2000.
Williams, who had 80 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season, made a convincing argument about why he should be top pick.
"I’m competing with quarterbacks at a really different position. I would say from previous years, sometimes it’s taking a chance when you take a quarterback," Williams said. "You never know what you’re going to get. I’m going to bring a disruption and a physicalness and get to the passer."
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Williams’ ascent to being in the NFL, let alone the top pick, has been a rapid one. He didn’t start playing football until his freshman year in high school and couldn’t play Pop Warner because he was 6-foot and 220 pounds at 12. Williams said it wasn’t until his sophomore season at Mainland High School in Florida that he knew football may be in his future.
From there, he was recruited to Southern California by former Trojans recruiting ace Ed Orgeron. At USC Williams became a stalwart on the defensive line thanks to his ability to move around the line. Moving around in Southern Cal’s 3-4 defense is what Williams preferred.
"It was more fun to create matchups and go up against some weaker opponents once in a while," Williams said. "When the coaches switched it up for me, I liked it."
Williams’ movement skills are something Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster has noticed.
"When you think of a 3-4 defense typically you think of a big two gap player," Webster said. "It’s rare to find players that can do that; play one gap, penetrate and get up the field and rush the passer. It’s hard to find a guy that can block and be a receiver. When you have guy like Leonard who can do both that’s something special."
For a defensive lineman, being special means getting picked high in the draft. And at the top of the draft there are plenty of teams looking for a special talent on defense.
"At the end of the day, this is the NFL and this has been a dream of mine for a long time and I want to play for any team that takes me," Williams said. "But if it comes down to it, I want to go as high as possible and that comes down to Tampa Bay and Tennessee."