The unflappable Quinnen Williams is the best player in the 2019 NFL draft

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“I’m the best player in the whole draft class, because of the things I can do on the field and off the field,” Quinnen Williams told me as the start time to this week’s NFL draft draws ever near.

The confidence comes through in his declaration. It isn’t shrouded with a hint of brash or misplaced arrogance.

The Alabama defensive lineman has every right to believe he is the best prospect among a talented crop of players in the 2019 NFL draft. He prepares to enter the pro game after a decorated 2018 season where he earned first-team All-American honors and won the Outland Trophy for the nation’s top interior lineman. In a class loaded with talented pass rushers, Williams brings the ever coveted ability to provide interior disruption.

Williams makes a multi-dimensional case as to why he stands above his peers who are hoping to hear their names called this weekend. His play on the field speaks for itself but it’s his story that sets him apart.

Life after losing mom

When Quinnen was 12, his mother, Marquischa Henderson Williams, died of breast cancer. She was the central figure in his childhood, taking him and his younger sister everywhere she went, to the nail salon, hair appointments … wherever she went, there they were.

FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2017 file photo, Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams celebrates after sacking LSU quarterback Myles Brennan during the second half of an NCAA college football game, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Williams has been hot all season, really, but he was a monster in Alabama’s biggest game of the season so far against LSU. He had 10 tackles, seven solo stops, and 2½ sacks against the Tigers. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Their favorite restaurant was IHOP. He says his go-to order is the three-stack but notes, “I’ve probably tried everything but the burgers at IHOP.”

He doesn’t linger on the pain of losing a parent. The hurt of which as I sit here a 27-year-old, I can’t imagine. Because Quinnen Williams is different. He’s taken something that could break any of us and used it to become a better man. Losing her proved to be the pivotal moment in his young life, altering his entire approach.

14. Gardner Minshew — Washington State

2018 stats: 468/662, 70.7% completion, 4,779 yards passing, 38 touchdowns, 9 interceptions

One thing to know: Minshew excelled in Washington State’s high octane offensive attack, which gave him twice as many pass attempts as many quarterbacks in this draft class. In the past, a quarterback coming from a pass-happy college offense might have given teams pause, but with the NFL looking more like the Big 12 with each passing year, Minshew’s experience could be seen as a plus for a team looking for a late-round flier.

Key expert quote: From Brady Quinn of Fox Sports: “He’s the quarterback in this draft that reminds me most of Baker Mayfield. Minshew came out of Washington State, he was a grad transfer, went there one year, and he was phenomenal in Mike Leach’s Air Raid system.”

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

13. Nick Fitzgerald — Mississippi State

2018 stats: 145/281, 51.6% completions, 1,767 yards passing, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions

One thing to know: Nick Fitzgerald’s first shot at the NFL was derailed last year after a gruesome ankle injury ended his season and caused his draft stock to plummet. He didn’t have a great year in 2018, but still sports the build and skills that had many experts pegging him as a mid-to-late-round pick at last year’s draft.

Key expert quote: From Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: “Fitzgerald has pro size and will need to develop his accuracy and pocket passing.”

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

12. Easton Stick — North Dakota State

2018 stats: 175/281, 62.3% completion, 2,752 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

One thing to know: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz showed that North Dakota State signal callers could make it in the NFL. Stick has a similar winning pedigree, leading the Bison to the FCS championship the past two seasons.

Key expert quote: From Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: “Stick has generated some media buzz after three nice seasons at North Dakota State. The senior has a quality arm and also has mobility.”

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

11. Tyree Jackson — Buffalo

2018 stats: 225/407, 55.3% completion, 3,131 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

One thing to know: Tyree Jackson’s clearest NFL comp is Josh Allen — both players are huge, and sport a cannon of an arm. At the combine, Jackson was throwing so hard that NFL Network’s Steve Smith had to pull him over and remind him that the receivers needed an easier ball to catch, as they were working on getting drafted as well.

Key expert quote: From Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports: “Jackson is exactly the type of quarterback who generates some excitement when he gets drafted in the middle rounds. He’s big, extremely fast for his size, looks strong and has an arm live enough to put some pressure on the guys in front of him.”

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

10. Trace McSorley — Penn State

2018 stats: 192/361, 53.2% completion, 2,530 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

One thing to know: Trace McSorley was asked to participate in drills with the defensive backs at the NFL combine, but declined the offer, choosing instead to work out solely as a quarterback.

Key expert quote: From New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton: “When I looked at him, my first thought was, ‘I wonder if he can be [Julian] Edelman?’ I wondered if he could be a versatile kind of guy.”

(AP Photo/John Raoux)

9. Brett Rypien — Boise State

2018 stats: 301/447, 67.3% completion, 3,705 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

One thing to know: Brett Rypien was a four-year starter for the Boise State Broncos, and could be a solid day-two or day-three pick for teams looking to develop a talent.

Key expert quote: From Gavino Borquez of Draft Wire: “Rypien is a pocket quarterback who displays excellent pocket mobility. His dropbacks are crisp, and his movement within the pocket is efficient. He has a quick, compact release and relies on clean legs and hip torque to generate velocity.”

(AP Photo/Steve Conner)

8. Clayton Thorson — Northwestern

2018 stats: 299/489, 61.1% completion, 3,183 yards passing, 17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions

One thing to know: Clayton Thorson has shown an ability to step up in big games, leading Northwestern to impressive wins over four ranked opponents this year, including Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa in 2018.

Key expert quote: From Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: “Thorson has shown that he has pro potential in terms of his skill set. He can throw the deep out with a fastball that can be fit into tight windows. Thorson also has a quick delivery but is a bit too mechanical. Scouts say that he has a strong arm, is smart and athletic, and improves year over year.”

(AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

7. Jarrett Stidham — Auburn

2018 stats: 224/369, 60.7% completion, 2,794 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 5 interceptions

One thing to know: Jarrett Stidham is one of the fascinating quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. He’s smart, has an impressive arm, and looks incredibly smooth in his throws. But in two seasons at Auburn’s, he never threw for more than 18 touchdowns in a year. If he pans out, he could be the best quarterback of this year’s group, but he’ll have to find the right spot to hone his skills further.

Key expert quote: From Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy: “He throws a beautiful ball. I’ve said it before, he looks like he came out of the womb throwing the football. Mechanically, he’s the best in this class. The ball just comes off his hand really clean.”

(AP Photo/Todd Kirkland, File)

6. Ryan Finley — NC State

2018 stats: 326/484, 67.4% completion, 3,928 yards passing, 25 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

One thing to know: Fellow NC State alum and Chargers starting quarterback Philip Rivers helped Ryan Finley prepare for the NFL— don’t be shocked if Los Angeles chooses to pick him up after the first round and groom him behind Rivers for a few years.

Key expert quote: From Charlie Campbell of Walter Football: “He was an accurate game-manager for N.C. State, doing a good job of protecting the football and leading an efficient passing offense. However, Finley has limitations as a passer and is not a dynamic thrower of the football. He could be a less-athletic version of Alex Smith for the NFL.”

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

5. Will Grier — West Virginia

2018 stats: 266/397, 67% completion, 3,864 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

One thing to know: Will Grier was one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch in college football in his two years with West Virginia, but he’ll likely be seen as a high-risk, high-reward play as a potential draft pick.

Key expert quote: From ESPN’s Todd McShay: “Grier is a good athlete who extends a high percentage of plays with his feet. He’s competitive and tough, but durability is a concern. Grier is a productive and athletic college quarterback with mechanical flaws as a passer.”

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

4. Daniel Jones — Duke

2018 stats: 237/392, 60.5% completion, 2,674 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, 9 interceptions

One thing to know: With Tom Brady set to be 42 at the start of the 2019 NFL season, and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer now 33, some have projected Daniel Jones as a potential successor in New England, with the Patriots taking him with the final pick of the first round.

Key expert quote: From ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: “The most impressive trait I’ve seen from Jones this season is his ability to buy time in the pocket and use his feet to get square and make a throw.”

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

3. Drew Lock — Missouri

2018 stats: 275/437, 62.9% completion, 3,498 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

One thing to know: Drew Lock has seen his draft stock rise exponentially in the build-up to the draft, with NFL.com’s Chad Reuter now projecting that the Raiders take him with the fourth overall pick.

Key expert quote: From ESPN’s Todd McShay: “Lock shows an ability to extend plays. If developed properly, he has the natural tools to start in the NFL.”

(AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

2. Dwayne Haskins — Ohio State

2018 stats: 373/533, 70% completions, 4,831 yards passing, 50 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

One thing to know: Should Kyler Murray wind up going to the Cardinals as many are projecting, don’t be surprised if a big trade occurs for a team to swoop in for Dwayne Haskins. He’s got one of the best arms in the draft class and would appeal to multiple teams looking for their next franchise quarterback.

Key expert quote: From ESPN’s Todd McShay: “Haskins anticipates well, and he has touch on shorter throws and the high-level arm to drive the ball down the field with accuracy. Based solely on his physical tools, the bar is really high for the Ohio State starter despite a limited college career.”

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

1. Kyler Murray — Oklahoma

2018 stats: 260/377, 69% completion, 4361 yards passing, 42 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

One thing to know: Just a few months ago, no one was even sure if Kyler Murray would enter the draft or choose to pursue baseball professionally. Now, he’s widely considered the favorite to be selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the first overall pick.

Key expert quote: From ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: “[Murray] can make every throw. I’ve said several times that he’s one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. Murray won’t be for every team and every system, but if he lands in the right spot, he could be a star.”

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

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With his mother gone, Quinnen took on a leadership role in the home. He viewed it as his duty to take care of his sister above all other tasks. He’d help her with homework, put her hair in a ponytail and sleep on her bedroom floor at night just to watch over her. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to tell people “that’s my daughter right there” to cement the caretaker position he assumed for his family.

“It’s formed it a lot,” Quinnen responds to how his role at home influenced his football career. “Being disciplined, holding people accountable, just setting an example for everybody.”

Growing up as a leader in his own home, Williams says he quickly learned that those qualities must first start with him before he can set an example for others. “That’s how I carry myself through any team, through any franchise. I’m going to have to be on my A-game every day. So when I tell another individual, like, how to do something or what to do, I continue to back it up with my performance on the field, off the field, and the way I carry myself – my character.”

‘I’m definitely not perfect’

The term “tone-setter” is often thrown around loosely, or simply assigned to some linebacker or safety known for big hits. You can say the same with culture. We’re constantly told by “team-building experts” that good organizations build a culture, while bad organizations don’t have a defined one. More often than not, an explanation for what good, bad or absent culture looks like does not follow, at least nothing beyond a nebulous definition.

Sometimes best interpretations come from terms personified. Quinnen Williams defines tone-setter. He personifies culture.

Williams continues to paint a picture of his off-field approach when probed for the best trait in his draft profile. “I think my best strength is breaking down tendencies and breaking down film. That’s one of the things I can do really well … one of the things I can do at an elite level.”

Continuing to strive for a leader’s mindset, Williams details how he wants to see everything when in the film room. Beyond his assignments, he’s looking for what makes each offensive lineman tick, where his linebackers run fits are, and anything else he needs to crack the case of each upcoming opponent. He wants his approach to mirror that of what’s expected from the sport’s most important position. When Williams is in the film room, he wants everyone to know, as he tells me, that he’ll be “breaking down film like a quarterback,” in order to gain every edge possible.

While Williams is confident, assertive and downright unflappable when it comes to how he believes he can set a standard for those around him, he’s grounded. He speaks with an air of self-assurance, not of boast. It makes for a seamless transition as we begin to dissect how he can improve.

“Oh, man, I gotta improve on a lot of things … I’m definitely not perfect. I’m a one-year starter.” With eyes wide open to the reality that a period of growth and struggle is on the horizon as an NFL rookie, Williams could not be more ready. He details his eagerness to learn, “once I’m in the NFL, man, I do want to get around great veterans, guys who did it at an elite level for a long time, and just learn from them, learn how to be a pro.”

Something tells me veterans will take to Quinnen’s approach.

Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams prepares to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As we discuss his plan to adjust to life as a rookie learning the NFL life on the fly, I pose Williams a theory about his own job. Draft media does not get everything right. Far from it. However, if there is one evolution that has caused the discourse around the coverage to drastically improve, it’s the way we break down pass rushers.

Even a few years ago the media and fans were hyper-focused on the differences between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. We split players into about seven different positions between 4-3 ends, 3-4 nose tackles, three technique under tackles and far too many more. And we did it all back then without changing our thinking in how to designate players. A 4-3 edge pass rusher and a hulking 3-4 defensive end would both be slapped with the “DE” tag, despite their on-field assignments being of stark difference.

We’ve since evolved. Now, we’re properly blurring the lines between schemes to account for how often defenses are in nickel to combat pass-heavy 11-personnel. The outside pass rushers are all designated as edge defenders. The linemen, whether outside or inside of a 3-4 or the two tackles in a 4-3 are all interior defensive linemen. The coverage is smarter and a lot of it is thanks to some of the most dedicated, under-appreciated draft grinders on the internet. The movement began on draft Twitter.

As Quinnen and I discuss this concept, he’s quick to assert it doesn’t matter to him.

“I can do all the aspects on the whole defensive line,” he says with that same admirable confidence. “I feel like a lot of guys that I’ve gone against in this draft class can’t do that, in that aspect of playing zero, a nose, all the way out to a pass rusher into the five technique.”

Quinnen’s versatility will no doubt endear him to an ever multiple NFL. His ability to play across the defensive line, regardless of the nominal scheme, and cause interior disruption is exactly what all teams covet in this era.

Where should Williams go? It don’t matter

We begin to roll through possible landing spots. He calls back to his experience at Alabama, where he operated in both a four and three-man front. A theme, perhaps even a slogan quickly emerges in his words.

“It don’t no matter what position I play. I could play all positions along the defensive line. So if I went to play a four-line in the Arizona Cardinals defense, I’m going to be able to play that four-line. If I went to play the zero nose on the Arizona Cardinals defense, I can play the zero nose. But if I get drafted by the Jets or San Francisco, I can be able to play six-four, three-two. It don’t matter.”

It don’t matter.

The longer Williams and I spent talking, the more I became convinced of those words. Further secure in the case that even a cursory glance at his profile would allude to as the truth. Persuaded even deeper than spending hours marveling at the game film displaying his ability to produce interior disruption at the highest level of college football.

Speaking with Williams just served as a full-blown indoctrination into the words “it don’t matter.”

Whether he goes to Arizona, Oakland, New York or a team we aren’t considering yet, it don’t matter. This is a player who will find his way to not just success, but peak performance at his position, regardless of the system or team he lands with.

Not only does Williams possess every bit of athleticism and technical understanding of the position to be a great player in the NFL, the drive he features brought on by an entire adult life seeking to set a higher standard for himself so as to better those around him makes him an impossible human being to bet against.

The 2019 NFL draft has brought its fair share of intrigue, even at the very top. While it seemed we escalated quickly from mystery at the first overall pick to cementing Kyler Murray in the top spot back in February, we’ve started to reverse course here as the first round draws near.

As we approach the moment when Arizona will officially go on the clock, and the consequences of these selections are about to be quite real, one cannot help but ponder if teams in the top-three picks are beginning to turn their eyes to the best player in this draft. In a league fraught with turnover, haunted by ghosts of past decision-makers who chased a shiny object of undefined upside, it’s hard to argue that Williams makes for anything but the most secure proposition in an exercise like the draft that is the most inexact science of all.

Our time together begins to wind to a close, as Quinnen and I both are set to jet off to our next tasks of the day. Before we conclude our conversation, I asked him how he plans to celebrate his first sack in the NFL. He laughs with glee before offering his reply.

“I know I’m gonna dance. I’m gonna do my … I have a celebration that I need to go ahead and patent real quick so nobody will steal it. So I need to come up with a name for it. So I’m going to do my celebration, the one I always do in college. I’m gonna bring it to the NFL.”

After my conversation with Quinnen Williams, I’d agree; he needs that name and should file that patent soon. He’s not going to have to wait too long for that first sack at the NFL level. It does not matter where the next stop on the journey is for this truly special human, the best player in the 2019 NFL draft will find success.

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