Jets' Quinnen Williams has evolved into a stiff-arming, 'absolute game-wrecker'

Quinnen Williams' pass-rush numbers rank him among the league's top interior defensive linemen. AP Photo/Adam Hunger

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Quinnen Williams arrived on the NFL scene as an unpretentious, almost cuddly 21-year-old whose bouncy personality was on full display in one of his first post-draft interviews. Speaking to NFL Network after being selected by the New York Jets, the big defensive tackle blessed and thanked himself after a mid-sentence sneeze -- a do-it-all moment of mirth that belongs in the Hall of Politeness. Naturally, it went viral.

First impressions can last a lifetime. But not in this case.

Williams' fourth season has been defined by two images -- his stiff-arm that rag-dolled Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill and a heated sideline argument with position coach Aaron Whitecotton. The latter stunned teammates because of the magnitude of Williams' eruption, how quickly he jumped off the bench and got into Whitecotton's face. That, too, went viral.

"It would crush me if anybody ever watched that video and said, 'Oh, man, he's just like all the rest of these guys,'" said Whitecotton, alluding to the stereotypical bad-boy player.

Williams most certainly isn't that guy, but he's playing with a sharper edge than in previous years, according to those closest to him. The sometimes goofy rookie whose laugh made us laugh is now a more serious 24-year-old whose commitment level is higher than ever; a perfectionist who laments the bad plays more than he celebrates the good ones; a former third overall pick who believes his time has come.

"He's an absolute game-wrecker, a kick-ass player in every way," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said.

The surprising Jets (3-2) are ranked 10th in total yards allowed -- up from 32nd last season -- and one of the big reasons is Williams. Despite being double-teamed at a higher rate through five games in 2022 (65.4%) versus last season (57.5%), his pass-rushing metrics put him among the league's top interior defensive linemen.

"He has the potential to scare opponents as an Aaron Donald does when he's double-teamed," said former Jets defensive tackle Joe Klecko, a senior finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Listen, there's no doubt he's a talented kid, a talented guy. If he's determined to be the best, he has the ability to be the best. How much does he want to achieve? I don't know that. That's what it takes. What's inside of you?"

Klecko was asking rhetorically, not critically. Teammates say Williams ramped up his training this past offseason and came to camp with a renewed purpose. He also arrived at camp with a healthy body, which might be the biggest reason for his hot start.

In 2021, he missed a chunk of training camp because of a fractured foot, which occurred during a spring workout and required surgery. The lost time, coupled with the acclimation to coach Robert Saleh's 4-3 system (a stark departure from the previous 3-4 scheme), probably kept Williams from reaching his full potential. It was a good season (six sacks, seven tackles for loss), but not quite as good as 2020 (seven and 10). The sense within the organization was that the former Alabama star still had more to give.

Jets linebacker Quincy Williams, Quinnen's brother, traced the turning point to the most recent offseason, saying his younger brother became meticulous about his training regimen.

"He made a schedule, and he's been sticking to it," Quincy said. "In the past, it wasn't structured. He didn't write it down. He was just working out, here and there, whatever. This year, I felt like he kind of locked on to it and stuck with it."

Quincy said the difference between his brother and other players is he "tries to find little things in his game that make him jump off the screen." He popped on video two weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers, chasing down quarterback Kenny Pickett with an all-out sprint that amazed teammates and coaches.

In a tight fourth quarter, Williams covered 34 yards and reached a top speed of 18 mph, which is flying for a 305-pound man. He prevented Pickett from turning the corner, knocking him out of bounds for a 3-yard gain.

He popped up again Sunday, scooping up a loose ball and tossing aside Hill with a vicious stiff-arm that would've made Derrick Henry proud. Not only was it a key play in the game, but it fired up teammates because Hill had spurned them in the offseason with "disrespectful" comments, according to defensive end John Franklin-Myers.

The scoop-and-smash also was symbolic. The Jets, bullied for years, finally punched back.

"Quinnen is on a rampage right now, and he's going to keep it up because of his preparation, his habits and his focus," running back Michael Carter said. "When his time comes, he deserves $100 million because he's that infectious in the locker room and that impactful on the field."

Williams is under contract through 2023, his fifth-year option, so he's in line for a massive payday, probably before next season. He doesn't like to talk about his contract. Oddly, he doesn't like to talk about his highlight plays either.

When the Pickett play was mentioned, Williams turned the conversation to a missed opportunity at the goal line from the same game, saying he should've tackled running back Najee Harris for a loss. On the next play, he lamented, Pickett scored on a quarterback sneak. Days later, it still was eating at Williams.

"I tend to skip over the good plays," he said. "I really dwell and focus on the bad plays. I feel like I've got more in me and more I want to accomplish -- more to help us win football games."

That mentality was ingrained in him by Nick Saban, Alabama's hard-driving coach. In Saban's world, "complacency" is a dirty word. He preaches to his players that those who remain the same -- or stagnant -- will get passed by. Williams took it to heart. He's always been considered a hard worker, but there's a difference between routine and commitment, as Hall 0f Fame coach Bill Parcells used to tell his players.

Early in training camp, Williams let everyone know this season was going to be different. As Carter recalled, "We were having success running the ball, and then Quinnen made up his mind, like, 'Nah, we're done with that.' It was like a switch flipped, and he's been like that ever since. It got to a point where we were running the ball only when he wasn't on the field in practice."

It hasn't changed in the regular season. When Williams has been on the field, the Jets have allowed 3.5 yards per rush, per NFL Next Gen Stats. When he's been off the field, it has ballooned to 4.8.

Williams isn't on the field as much as the other top interior linemen, as the Jets believe in rotating liberally throughout the game. He has played only 64% of the defensive snaps, a few ticks up from last season (59%) but well shy of stars like the Los Angeles Rams' Donald (89%) and the Tennessee Titans' Jeffery Simmons (83%).

Klecko, who didn't get many in-game breaks during his career, isn't a fan of rotating linemen, saying, "I believe it's a detriment. I don't believe in coming out. You take me out of the game and it's like, 'What are you doing this for?'" He said he always relished the chance to wear down an opponent, using certain moves to set him up for later in the game.

For his part, Williams said the rotation is "great." He said he believes in his coaches and their philosophy.

"I believe in every single person in my defensive line room," he said.

The Jets believe in him. And that's nothing to sneeze at.