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Steelers Nick Williams spent his time learning the mental side of the game

The Steelers' seventh-round draft pick in 2013 suffered a knee subluxation during training camp, had surgery in October and was on crutches through January. Unable to play, he spent his time working on the mental aspects of the game by watching film.

Justin K. Aller

Steelers defensive end Nick Williams knew it the second it happened.

During practice last year, toward the end of the preseason, Williams was rushing the passer in a live scrimmage, and a player was pushed into his knee. He told reporter Teresa Varley he knew it was pretty serious when he hit the ground.

"The initial reaction was, ‘What am I going to do now?" Williams told Varley. "The Steelers are a great organization and they want to mold me into what they want to mold me into. It was gracious of them to keep me on the team and keep chugging along."

Part of that chugging included surgery in New York City on Oct. 31 - as soon as he had more motion back in his leg, and a redshirt season of watching film.

To that end, Williams did all he could to improve his game, even if he couldn't walk without crutches, let alone practice live.

"I couldn’t play, but I got better mentally, better in the classroom just watching film," Williams said. "There were some pros and cons. I would have loved to have played. I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing first season. It was just a stepping stone and something for me to grow from."

The Steelers find themselves potentially in a beneficial spot this season, and one not all that dissimilar to the position they were in before the 2013 season. A previous year's draft pick is returning from a significant injury, giving them, from one point of view, a chance to have a rookie on the team who has a year of mental preparation at the NFL level under his belt. The Steelers lost 2012 first round draft pick David DeCastro for most of his rookie season when he was injured in the preseason. He played the final three games of that year, and returned fully healthy for the next year.

DeCastro emerged as one of the best in the game at his position last year. Williams isn't likely to reach that level in just a year, but at least is on a team that's riding something of a hot streak with seventh round picks getting on the field. Kelvin Beachum and David Paulson were selected in the seventh round of the 2012 draft and both saw time the last two years.

Williams could help the Steelers fill a critical role. There is little depth on the defensive line with the departures of Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel. The team signed Cam Thomas from San Diego, and he's expected to work out as a defensive end and is the presumed starter opposite Cam Heyward. Long-term, though, the Steelers lack depth at this position.

Williams said his goal is to be able to do some work during the Steelers' offseason program, which begins April 22. He's not in game-shape yet, but there is still time before training camp.

He's bided his time before and become a better player in doing it. There's no reason to think he can't continue to do that.