When Trent Williams was drafted fourth overall in 2010, the Redskins hoped the left tackle would develop into one of the NFL’s dominant players at the position.
Two-plus seasons into a career that got off to a rocky start, Williams, at 24, is making significant strides toward earning elite status.
“The question was work ethic,” Coach Mike Shanahan said this week of Williams’ reputation coming out of Oklahoma. “Was he going to get to the next level? I’ve seen that maturity since he’s been here, learning how to be a pro, learning how to be accountable, learning how to lead. You’re never positive he’s going to be able to do it, or have the discipline to do it. But you can see the progress, and you can see it in his play as well.”
The Redskins lead the NFL in rushing yards with 1,799 (two more than San Francisco). Running back Alfred Morris, meantime, is only 18 yards from 1,000, while quarterback Robert Griffin III ranks among the leaders in completion percentage.
Some of that is the sublime talent Morris and Griffin possess. A decent amount of it, though, is an overachieving Williams-led offensive line that has consistently opened holes for Morris and provided ample time for Griffin to fire off accurate passes.
“Being in the NFC, you [face] all of the top defensive ends, all the top pass rushers,” Williams said. “I’m getting used to that. It’s never easy, but I’m adapting to it. Things are slowing down for me.”
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Williams has given up three sacks (of Griffin’s 25), one quarterback hit and 12 hurries (four coming as he limped through the Dallas game with a bruised thigh).
When Williams dissects film of his performances, he said a couple of things jump off the screen: both his downfield blocks and technique in pass protection are much improved over his sophomore season. He's also more aggressive and instinctual, products of experience and growing confidence.
That said, Williams conceded that he considers himself far from a finished product.
“As a player, you strive to be great,” he said. “Five years down the line, I want it to be a consensus that I’m the best tackle in the game. And I’m going to continue to work hard until I reach that goal.”
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck believes Williams already is well on his way.
“He’s coming into his own as far as being one of the premier left tackles in the league,” Tuck said. “A lot of teams give their linemen a lot of help. I haven’t seen the Redskins give him much help. That lets me know how confident they are in him.”
Asked about the increasing Pro Bowl chatter surrounding his name in recent weeks, Williams smiled said, “I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t mean anything. Of course it means a lot. It means my hard work is finally getting recognized and finally paying off.”
Laying the foundation for his breakout season, however, happened far from the practice fields and classrooms of Redskins Park. It began with getting his personal affairs in order after he missed the final four games of the 2011 season because of an NFL suspension for failed drug tests.
“Last year,” he said, “on the field, I did okay. I played pretty well. In the locker room I was always a good teammate. I got voted a team captain. There were just some things, some decisions I had to make in my personal life, some habits I had to break.”
So far this season, Williams has, by all accounts, been better than a “good” teammate. He’s been an exemplary one. Elected a team captain for the second straight season, he has not missed a game, despite being hampered by bone bruises in his foot and knee as well as ankle and shoulder injuries.
In the Redskins’ victory at Cowboys Stadium on Thanksgiving, Williams suffered a deep thigh bruise when he collided with teammate Kory Lichtensteiger on the third play of the game.
He did not miss a snap.
“It’s heart,” Williams said. “When your body feels pain, you automatically want to shut down. It’s not an easy thing to play through, especially when you play against people who get paid millions to beat you.”
Said Shanahan: “I appreciate him fighting through it and staying out there and helping us win.”
The injury limited Williams in practice and he’s listed as questionable for Monday night’s pivotal showdown with the Giants. But if prior history is any indication, No. 71 will suit up – sporting thigh pads for the first time and possibly a slight limp.
“When you’re less than 100-percent, it makes it that much harder,” Williams said. “I just feel like for me to be a huge asset to this team, I have to play hurt and I have to be able to finish games.”
Williams’ grit hasn’t gone unnoticed by teammates. Asked about Williams' thigh injury, Griffin joked that he would “rub on his leg” if that helped the 6 foot 5, 325 pound tackle heal up.
One of the characters in the Redskins’ locker room, Williams cracked that he appreciated the offer but politely declined it.
“I told him he can keep that,” he said with a chuckle. “He has not rubbed my leg. At no time will he touch my upper thigh.”