Much of the focus since Robert Saleh was hired as the Jets’ new head coach has been what his arrival can mean for quarterback Sam Darnold. But it is another Jet who was also selected No. 3 overall who could benefit even more from Saleh’s coaching.
Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams had a breakout season in 2020 with seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits. But Saleh believes he can get even more out of Williams. Saleh studied Williams in the 2019 draft when the 49ers selected Nick Bosa No. 2 overall, one pick ahead of where Williams.
“I absolutely love Quinnen,” Saleh said this week. “Really excited to get the seat belt off of his harness and let him go. In this scheme, to get him going vertical, to get all that mass moving in the direction that he needs to go, I’m really excited about the potential that he’s going to have. Loved him coming out. Obviously, we took Bosa. He was right there as part of the discussion, I can assure you of that. With regards to that young man — his mindset, his athleticism, his power, his love for football — really, really excited to see him in our system, especially up front with the way we design with that attack style up front.”
The 49ers defense, led by Saleh, featured a strong defensive line. The team invested first-round picks often at the position, showing how much they valued defensive linemen. San Francisco has selected five defensive linemen in the first round since 2015. Saleh arrived in 2017 and he had success with linemen such as DeForest Buckner, Bosa and Arik Armstead. Last season, Kerry Hyder had 8.5 sacks in Saleh’s system.
When Saleh installs his defense along with new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, Williams will surely be a focal point for him. The Jets roster does not have much talent on it, but Williams is one player Saleh can build around. The 23-year-old made a huge leap in his second season before a neck injury ended it prematurely. Williams is not just a force in his own right, he will draw attention from opposing offenses that will free up others.
“That kid is special,” Saleh said on “The Michael Kay Show.” “He’s a game-wrecker. He’s somebody you have to game plan against to keep him at bay. Obviously, that gives the other 10 guys an opportunity to excel just because of the focus that he’s going to garner.”
Speaking the day after the season ended and before Saleh was hired, Williams said he knows he can improve entering next season.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling. I think I have a lot of leeway to grow into,” Williams said. “I’ve got a lot of things to hit. I feel like I haven’t scratched the surface yet because all the things I did this year may be good, but I know a lot of things I can think about off the top of my head that I did wrong. I left a lot of plays out there, a lot of missed tackles that I’m supposed to have, a lot of flags I got that could have been sacks, things like that I wish I could get back. Going into the next season I have an even bigger chip on my shoulder to clean up those things so I could become a better player, an even more dominant player.”
Williams concentrated on improving his nutrition last offseason and getting in better shape. This year, he said he wants to get stronger.
“I feel like all the best interior pass rushers in the NFL are known for their strength,” Williams said. “Like Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Fletcher Cox are known for their strength. I feel like I have to get on their level strength-wise so I can be inside that caliber of level of play.”
His new coach might help him get there, too.