When the Steelers were flirting with free-agent, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower last spring, what were you thinking? You may have been thinking Pittsburgh was finally going all-in with an eye towards strengthening its defense for a possible Super Bowl run.
I wonder what Vince Williams was thinking during that time. I'll bet it was something along the lines of, "Why did I bother signing that contract-extension through the 2018 season?"
If the fifth-year man out of Florida State was thinking that, it would have been hard to blame him. After all, as a former sixth-round pick who certainly put in his time behind both Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, a 10-year veteran who left for the Dolphins as a free agent last March, it sure seemed like Williams had paid his dues and proved he was worthy of a legitimate shot at the top of the depth chart.
In-fact, the top of the depth chart was nothing new for Williams, at least during his rookie year, when he was thrust into the role of starter after veteran Larry Foote suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 of the 2013 campaign.
Starting a total of 11 games, Williams gained experience through the baptism-by-fire approach. While he was far-from perfect, as evidenced by safety Troy Polamalu often taking his place on obvious passing downs, this experience undoubtedly shortened his learning curve.
Williams may have started only a combined two games during the next two seasons, but he proved to be a valuable backup and an asset on special teams—so much so in fact, there was speculation the Steelers might cut Timmons prior to the 2016 campaign, rather than pay him the hefty salary he was due in the last year of his contract.
The Steelers kept Timmons around, but there was that aforementioned contract extension given to Williams right before the start of the regular season—a transaction that reaffirmed the belief that the latter would replace the former as starter in 2017.
Early in 2017, Shazier suffered an injury that kept him out for a month. In his place, Williams performed at a high-enough level—including a 16-tackle performance in a blow-out victory over the Chiefs in Week 4—to spark lively discussions about whether or not he deserved more playing-time once Shazier returned to action.
As for Timmons, he actually started all 16 games a year ago and, after a slow start, began to perform like the Pro Bowl version of old.
In-fact, once Shazier returned to the lineup, Williams saw very limited action down the stretch.
Had the coaches fallen out of favor with him? Had he proven to be too much of a liability in the passing game?
Williams’ performance in pass coverage has always been a concern for many—including experts and fans alike. These concerns persisted after Timmons signed a two-year deal with the Dolphins, and Hightower ultimately re-signed with the Patriots, and they continued all the way through training camp.
However, here we are, eight games into the 2017 season, and nobody is really talking about Williams as a weak link on the defense anymore. It's just the opposite, actually, as No. 98 is second on the team with 32 tackles. Big deal, right? In a 3-4 defense, the inside backer is supposed to eat up tackles like Pacman devours dots. But after recording just 2.5 sacks during his first-four seasons, Williams has emerged as one of the surprise pass-rushers of 2017, ranking second on the defense with four sacks.
As for those concerns about Williams’ pass-coverage abilities? It's hard to say, as I don't know how often the Steelers play the nickel or dime and replace him with a defensive back.
I do know the Steelers defense is fifth overall and second against the pass.
No disrespect to Timmons, who gave the Steelers many great seasons, but I also know Williams is performing better for Pittsburgh than Timmons in Miami, and at a much more affordable price.
As for Hightower, he's out for the rest of the season with an injury.
There’s no doubt the Steelers place great importance on linebackers, as illustrated by the four first-round picks they've used on the position since 2013.
But you can't fill every position with a top draft pick. Somewhere along the way, you have to find a lower-round talent and develop him into a starter.
Williams might not have the athleticism or upside of a Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt or Ryan Shazier, but there he is, a valuable starter, just like them.
Vince Williams isn't a Pro Bowl player in the Steelers’ defense, but he isn't a weak link, either.
And in this salary cap era, when tough decisions are often required regarding high-paid superstars, the latter may be just as important as the former.