Cleveland Browns cornerback K’Waun Williams came out of nowhere in 2014 to play an important role in a secondary that was one of the NFL’s best.
While Browns fans were already aware of what Williams brought to the field, the undrafted free agent out of the University of Pittsburgh is gaining national attention as he has been named the team’s “Secret Superstar” by Pro Football Focus.
Even though the Browns had selected cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir in the 2014 NFL Draft, and already had Joe Haden and Buster Skrine as the starters, head coach Mike Pettine works under a mantra that a team can never have enough cornerbacks. And with secondary coach Jeff Hafley having coached Williams in college, the Browns took a chance on Williams and gave him a tryout.
“If you have heart and you play hard, you can make it on our team.” – Browns cornerback K’Waun Williams
Once he made it through that first step, Williams continued to make the most of his opportunities when they arrived, using the fact that no one wanted him as motivation.
“You have to play with a chip on your shoulder,” Williams told ESPN.com. “After every play you make, they say ‘undrafted.’ That’s the first thing they tag you with. So I just play with it and try to prove that anyone can make it in this league. If you have heart and you play hard, you can make it on our team.”
Despite being on the field for just 42 plays during the preseason, Williams showed the coaches enough to make the final roster. He played sparingly during the first four months of the season, just 18 in all, but was on the field for more than half the defensive plays in Week 5 against Tennessee and did well enough that he continued to take playing time away from Gilbert as the season went along.
According to Pro Football Focus, which also ranked Williams as the sixth-best cover corner in 2014, Williams:
"finished 2014 with the sixth-highest coverage grade of all cornerbacks, despite playing less than 400 snaps. He allowed 1.06 Yards Per Coverage Snap, which was only tied for 29th in the league, so there is some room for improvement there, with similar room for improvement from the slot, where his 1.10 YPCS was tied for 24th.As always, the concern with a player like Williams is the limited sample size but, from what we’ve seen, he has a very bright future ahead of him. In today’s NFL, with the focus on passing, a third cornerback is essentially a starter anyway, but with the addition of Tramon Williams opposite Joe Haden, it looks like Williams will be battling with both Gilbert and Desir for that role.If he can play like he did as a rookie, and avoid injuries like the two concussions he suffered, then he should be in a good position to do just that. He faced an uphill battle to even make the roster a year ago, so competing for something in training camp won’t be a surprise to him, but this year he’s out to prove he belongs as a key part of a Browns secondary that looks like the best unit on the roster."
The fact that Williams found himself on the field as a nickel back over players like Gilbert and Desir is a credit to his work ethic, as well as the coaching staff’s willingness to look past draft position and put the best players on the field. And with the Browns wrapping up Organized Team Activities, Williams is working hard to build on his success from last season.
“He’s one of the guys this spring that if you kind of had to rate the guys that have taken a big leap from the previous year, K’Waun is up there,” Pettine told ESPN.com. “A lot of it’s just a credit to him. He took that time from January to April. You could see he looks different physically. He’s bigger, but he’s leaner. He’s moving better.”
The Browns let Skrine leave in free agency but replaced him with Tramon Williams, meaning the battle for playing time among the cornerbacks will once again be heated. Even with his success as a rookie, K’Waun Williams is taking every opportunity he can to learn to use the competition and more experienced players to his advantage.
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“I’m like a sponge in the (film) room,” he told the team’s website. “I’m taking knowledge from Joe (Haden) and Tramon (Williams) and feeding off their success and learning new things as I go along. I have a better grasp for the game mentally. My first year, I was kind of learning it. Now, I kind of understand the things we’re doing on defense.
“It should be a great year. I feel prepared. I had a good offseason working on my body and trying to stay healthy. (Now I’m) just trying to take the next step and better my game.”
If Williams can take as big of a step in his second year as he did in his first, it won’t be long before this “secret superstar” is no longer a secret outside of Cleveland.
How much of a role do you think K’Waun Williams will have this season?