Sophomore Spotlight: Duke Williams

Second-year safety Duke Williams could be the answer for filling the void opened by Jairus Byrd’s departure. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot

Duke Williams didn’t play many snaps for the Buffalo Bills in 2013, but that number should rise significantly in 2014. With Jairus Byrd’s departure from Buffalo as a free agent this offseason, there is an opening in the lineup at safety alongside Aaron Williams. Da’Norris Searcy is pegged as the other starter, but Duke Williams is right behind him and could be in line for a much bigger role this season.

Making the Team

Duke Williams was selected by the Bills in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. Following his selection, NFL Network‘s Mike Mayock spoke highly of him.

“He’s a gifted kid. He’s had some off-the-field issues or he would have been drafted higher than this. He’s a special-teams player. He can close in on the football. He just has to watch his temper.”

NFL.com’s scouting report of Duke Williams touted him as an athletic safety who was not afraid of contact.

There was uncertainty at the safety position when the Bills drafted Williams because of a holdout by Byrd. Selecting Williams looks as though as it was a smart move by the Bills, given that 2013 turned out to be Byrd’s last season with the Bills.

2013 Season

Williams’ rookie season was unmemorable. While he appeared in all 16 games, Williams was credited with just five total tackles on the season (three solo).

He saw most of his playing time on special teams, but Pro Football Focus’ assessment (Subscription Required) of his play was not positive. On special teams, Williams was given a total grade of -13.0 (-5.5 on kickoffs, -7.0 on punts, -0.5 for penalties). Overall, Williams didn’t make much of an impact in his rookie season. His lack of playing time wasn’t surprising, however, as Byrd and Aaron Williams formed an impressive safety duo when both were on the field, while veterans Da’Norris Searcy and Jim Leonhard received significant playing opportunities.

2014 Outlook

Despite his lack of playing time in 2013, the Bills could play Duke Williams in a bigger role this season. BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown said Williams has made a positive impression despite not seeing much actual playing time.

I really liked what I saw from Williams in both the practice setting and the preseason last year. I think his athleticism caters well to the versatility you need nowadays at the safety position. He played corner at Nevada so coverage assignments down on the line aren’t an issue for him.

Duke Williams expects his role will expand in 2014 and that he could end up being the team’s starting strong safety, according to WGR550.com’s Joe Buscaglia.

“Certainly there’s a big void to be filled with Byrd gone. We have guys that can fill in, and you know, we’re competing right now. It’s a great opportunity for me to establish myself as a starter,” he said. “I’m ready, I’ve been through it already. The first year I got my feet wet and now I’m ready to take over.”

At the start of minicamp, Duke Williams was the team’s second free safety behind veteran Da’Norris Searcy, according to Buscaglia.

With the start of mandatory minicamp, the top safety on the Bills’ roster got back to work during team drills. Aaron Williams, who makes the cosmetic switch from ‘strong’ to ‘free’ safety, got his fair share of reps with the first team on Tuesday. Standing beside him on all of those reps? Fourth-year player Da’Norris Searcy. Searcy is in a clear battle with second-year player Duke Williams to be the starter alongside the other Williams that plays safety. While this isn’t a clear indication of who the coaching staff might favor, it appears that Searcy at least got the first crack at it due to his experience in actual game settings. It would be a surprise if Duke Williams didn’t get ample opportunity to show what he can do alongside Aaron Williams throughout the summer.

Duke Williams is likely to get an opportunity to win the starting strong safety job. Searcy is a solid safety in run support, but he can be exploited in coverage. Williams is the more athletic safety of the two and if he impresses the team in minicamp, training camp and the preseason, he has a great chance to start in Week 1.

There’s still plenty of football to be played before a final decision is made, but it’s likely the second-year safety will start at some point in 2014. He showed the ability to cover receivers in college, and his athleticism and physical play should fit well into new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme. Buffalo will certainly miss Byrd’s play in 2014, but a combination of Aaron and Duke Williams could work out nicely for the Bills.

More Sophomore Spotlights:

EJ Manuel

Robert Woods

Kiko Alonso (Injured)

Marquise Goodwin

Jonathan Meeks

Dustin Hopkins

Chris Gragg

Nickell Robey

Jeff Tuel

Tags: 2013 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills, Duke Williams, Nevada, Safeties, Sophomore Spotlight

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