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Making the Leap: Jets DL Leonard Williams

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In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.

Traditionally speaking, the New York Jets have not been associated with draft-day excellence.

This is the same team that took Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino, Blair Thomas over Emmitt Smith and Vernon Gholston over Joe Flacco. But give credit where credit is due: When a gift fell into Gang Green's lap two drafts ago, the organization didn't let the mistakes of its past undermine its future.

That "gift" was Leonard Williams. The USC defensive lineman was widely hailed as the best defensive player in his draft class, with some draft whisperers believing Williams had the goods to be the top overall selection. When Williams slipped out of the top five, the Jets wisely pounced at No. 6.

Williams was an instant contributor as a rookie and is primed to become a true breakout star under Todd Bowles in 2016.

Why Williams is on the list

To understand Williams' impact as a rookie, you have to look beyond numbers. Williams amassed just three sacks in his first season and didn't get credited with a full sack of his own until Week 13 against the Giants. But "The Big Cat" was a disruptive force when on the field. He led the Jets with 32 quarterback hits and was a major reason why they allowed just a single rushing touchdown in their base defense all season, according to analytics site ProFootballFocus.com.

He recorded 811 defensive snaps, second on the team to Muhammad Wilkerson and third among all defensive tackles. Williams did all this at just 21 years old -- he was the youngest Jet on the roster. When Williams wasn't on the field, the Jets got worse. Per ESPN Stats & Information, New York allowed 4.8 yards per play when Williams was on the field compared to 5.9 yards when he was not.

Williams is a specimen. Don't even think of asking a poor running back to pick him up in pass protection ...

And while we wouldn't usually showcase a big gainer by the opposition in an exercise like this, it's hugely impressive to watch a 6-foot-5, 302-pound lineman save a touchdown by making a tackle 33 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Five teams passed on this guy.

Obstacles he'll face

About that sack total.

The Jets didn't draft Williams thinking his ceiling would be as a stout run defender and effective pocket pusher. The team needs impact players who can put the quarterback on the turf, and Williams must take the next step as a pass rusher.

"I got to the quarterback a lot last year, but they were just hits; those aren't the stats I'm looking for," Williams said last month, via ESPN.com. "I want to get sacks. Those little seconds matter, getting to the quarterback."

The Jets removed Williams from the lineup during third-down passing situations for a stretch in 2015, a clear sign Bowles saw that as a deficiency in the rookie's game. To that point, Williams focused his offseason training on making improvements in those passing situations.

There are some questions on New York's talented defensive line. Nose tackle Damon Harrison -- one of the best run defenders in football -- signed with the Giants in free agency. A suspension will keep Sheldon Richardson out of the lineup in Week 1 for the second consecutive year. Wilkerson -- perhaps the Jets' best player -- is coming back from a broken leg and is currently embroiled in an ugly contract dispute that's been overshadowed by the Ryan Fitzpatrick saga on the other side of the ball.

In short, the line is in a state of flux, making it even more important for Williams to hit the ground running. With an unforgiving first-half schedule, the Jets can't afford to have Williams go through the growing pains that slowed him at points when he was a rookie.

Expectations for 2016

New York Post beat man Brian Costello wrote during minicamp that Williams played fast, looked more sure of himself and "was dominant at times" during practice. Jets defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, an old-school guy not known for hyperbole, told reporters that Williams has taken his game to "another level."

"He's physically capable of being one of the better defensive linemen in the league," Johnson said, via NJ.com.

Williams has the tools, mind-set and coaches to become the Jets' version of Richard Seymour for the next decade. It's "those little seconds" that matter, and we expect The Big Cat to make them up in 2016.

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