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Jonah Williams can be a franchise left tackle for the Bengals, short arms be damned

Retired defensive end Stephen White says the tape, not measurements, matters when it comes to offensive linemen — and Williams has what it takes to start immediately in the NFL.

The Cincinnati Bengals took Jonah Williams 11th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Here’s what Stephen White had to say about the Alabama left tackle ahead of the draft:

I try my best not to read other people’s assessments of college prospects who I plan to do my own draft profiles on because I would hate for someone else’s opinion to consciously, or unconsciously, influence mine. Sometimes, however, opinions about a certain player are close to impossible to avoid. Like, for instance, when the offensive line prospects were being measured at the NFL Combine, and the numbers for Jonah Williams came in.

What a weird range of reactions did those digits elicit on my Twitter timeline. All because, if I am getting this straight, his arms were longer than some people thought, but still not quite long enough according to others?

It was all very confusing for me.

As it happens, I had just started watching Williams’ Alabama tape the day before it was announced that his arms measured in at just under 34 inches. Prior to that, I don’t think I had ever been aware that 34 inches was some sort of dividing line for some team scouts and evidently for some draft evaluators in the media. More to the point, I hadn’t seen anything on Williams’ film to that point that would have made me think his arms were some how not long enough.

If there even is such a thing.

When I sat down to think about it after seeing the takes fly around, I realized that before I started working on this column, I honestly don’t think I have ever regarded arm length as a big deal when it comes to offensive linemen. Sure, having long arms could, in theory, help someone as a blocker, but only if they had a lot of other skills in their tool box, too. After all, I have seen plenty of shitty offensive linemen who had exceedingly long arms in my time as a player and now as an analyst.

Long arms are not some kind of panacea for offensive linemen, nor are “short” arms, in and of themselves, some kind of fatal flaw. It’s actually hard for me to believe that people are still stuck on this “perfect” measurement bullshit in 2019. Maybe it’s because I’m still bitter about being labeled “undersized” back when I came out, but more likely it’s because my experience has taught me that good players come in all shapes and sizes. It just befuddles me that some still haven’t figured that out.

Now, over the years I have adjusted what I value most when it comes to offensive linemen in general, and offensive tackles specifically. If anything, I care a lot more what they do with their lower body than anything else. Having a good, consistent pass set matters way more to me than if you can scratch your kneecaps while standing upright.

I also put a high value on linemen having above-average lateral quickness, good balance, and enough functional strength to hold their own, if not dominate. A mean streak is a plus, but not necessarily required.

Long arms just for the sake of having long arms though?

Man, I guess.

Williams checks two big boxes to be an NFL left tackle.

I have no idea if Williams’ arms being 33 5/8 inches long is going to shoot him up some draft boards or drag him down others. What I do know is based on the things I saw on his tape, in conjunction with what I value in an offensive lineman, there is no question in my mind that he is an outstanding left tackle prospect.

You want to talk about a good pass set? Williams routinely exhibited training tape technique on film. No matter where the guys he was assigned to block were lined up, Williams was going to give them that same kick step and backpedal, time after time after time.

It is obviously natural to him now, and that means he won’t have to be coached up much on that aspect of the game once he gets to the next level. I’m sure his NFL position coach will try to polish his technique up a bit at practice and stay on him about continuing to be consistent with it, but, footwork-wise at least, Williams already looks like a veteran when he pass sets.

When I try to determine if I believe someone can hold up well as a left tackle in the NFL — where they generally won’t get a ton of help and will usually have to be on an island against top-notch pass rushers quite a bit — I look for two things that usually go hand in hand. The first is a good pass set and the second is a high level of athleticism.

Athleticism is for what happens after the blocker starts to set back and the pass rusher he’s assigned to quickly approaches. Can they maintain their technique while adjusting on the fly to a speed rush or a spin move? The best guys not only can, but they also look smooth doing so.

Such was the case with Williams, who was really good at mirroring edge rushers when he had to block them one-on-one.

Williams’ feet were superb out in space, and he hardly ever looked to be off balance. He never panicked in his pass set, and he always kept his weight back as he patiently waited for each pass rusher to commit to a move. That allowed him to do a good job of staying in front of them initially. It also put him in good position to recover when the pass rusher attempted a counter move.

He was always putting himself in prime position to adjust to whatever kind of move the pass rusher was going to throw at him. That allowed him to pass off defenders during games, which was also extraordinary in that you rarely see college offensive linemen with that kind of savvy and awareness as blockers.

He knows how to keep pass rushers on their toes.

Of course Williams wasn’t perfect, and he did get beat a few times while he was pass blocking. What I noticed, though, was that of the handful of times when Williams let someone get past him, it was usually a situation where he started off in good shape at the beginning of the play, then eventually the defender found a way to get past him right at the end after the quarterback had held on to the ball for awhile.

In fact, there was only really one play where Williams got beat cleanly right off the bat in the four games that I saw. And you know what, in four games Williams didn’t give up a single sack and only three pressures by my count. Otherwise he was rock solid. That’s damn good, especially against the level of competition he faced in some of those games. “Long” arms or not, he got the job done, that’s for sure.

Another thing that I liked about Williams in pass protection is that he switched up his pass set from time to time. Instead of just sitting back on every passing play, sometimes he would jump set his opponent to stop their momentum before they got started, right on the line of scrimmage.

That kept pass rushers from being able to get comfortable in their stances. When you don’t know if a guy is jumping you or setting back deep, it can be hell trying decide what kind of get-off you want to use against them. For Williams to switch it up like he did, he forced those edge rushers to stay on guard at all times instead of firing off with reckless abandon when the ball was snapped.

Williams likes to serve up pancakes.

Just based on his pass blocking alone, I would rate Williams as a first-round left tackle prospect, but it turns out the guy is actually a helluva run blocker as well. I particularly enjoyed watching his work on combo blocks where he participated in a double-team at the line of scrimmage, then continued on up to the second level to block a linebacker or safety. Or should I say to obliterate a linebacker or safety.

I mean, he was taking some of these cats and driving them right off the camera!

I don’t know if I would call that a mean streak, but it was definitely obvious on his tape that Williams liked to finish his blocks. He didn’t just want to knock his opponents off the ball — he wanted to pancake their asses. As an old defensive linemen myself, I respect that kind of intensity.

Oh, and that athleticism that showed up in Williams’ pass blocking? It was conspicuous in some of his run blocking, as well. Alabama didn’t ask him to do a a whole lot of pulling in the four games I watched, but when it did, it was something glorious to behold.

Williams repeatedly showed me that he was not only fast enough and quick enough to get to his responsibilities in a hurry when he pulled, but that he was also athletic enough to make good contact and actually drive guys down the field on those kinds of blocks, too.

That is not something you see every day.

To recap, in Williams you get the kind of run blocker who can drive a defensive tackle off the ball on one play, then pancake a linebacker on the second level on the next, then pull out wide and splatter on the play after that.

There really isn’t anything he can’t do as a run blocker. But do tell me more about long his arms are or aren’t ...

Williams is versatile enough to play elsewhere but he should be a LT.

At 6’4 and some change and a little over 300 pounds, Williams isn’t the biggest offensive lineman I’ve ever seen, but his functional strength was self-evident on tape. I also imagine he’s going to get heavier after he makes it to the pros, anyway. Regardless, I don’t have any problems with any of Williams measurements. His tape shows me a guy who can play at a very high level, period.

Having said that, I do believe that Williams could play well inside if a team decided to move him there. I already talked about how good he is at pulling and at making blocks on the second level, so it shouldn’t be too shocking that I believe he could excel as a guard. I believe that the potential to move him inside is more of a reason to draft Williams.

But first and foremost, I think he can be franchise-type left tackle, and I expect any team that drafts him to start him off there at first.

It’s a great thing to me when a player shows he has the kind of skillset where if it doesn’t work out at one position, he has the potential to succeed at a different spot. It gives teams leeway in case there are some struggles at the beginning of a guy’s career.

That kind of versatility is especially welcome for offensive linemen because of how few are usually carried on the gameday roster for most teams. When you have a bunch of guys who can play wherever, then an injury or two on a Sunday afternoon doesn’t have to result in disaster.

But, barring a disaster, I would expect Williams to end up as a right tackle at worst. He just shows too much potential at tackle for me to believe that he would automatically “need” to be moved inside. There also aren’t a lot of top-notch left tackles just lying around, which is even more of a reason to give the kid a shot there at first to see what he can do.

This is my first breakdown of an offensive lineman, so I have no idea how high I would rank Williams in relationship to the rest of the tackles coming out in this class just yet. However, I will say that he I believe in most years he would be taken somewhere around the middle of the first round if not higher.

Wherever he goes, his new team is getting a guy who is ready to start from day one protecting the quarterback’s blindside. Jonah Williams should be an upgrade as both a pass blocker and a road grader wherever he is inserted in the lineup.

And after he is drafted this April, I doubt anybody will talk about his arm length much, if at all, again.

For the purposes of this breakdown I watched Jonah Williams play against Arkansas State, Missouri, Auburn, and Georgia. Those represented the second, seventh, 12th, and 13th game on Alabama’s schedule last season, respectively.