By far, one of the biggest shocks from the Detroit Lions’ cuts this weekend was when Antwione Williams was waived and was not chosen to return to the team’s practice squad. Williams entered training camp and the preseason not only as a perceived roster lock, but as a potential starter at strongside linebacker.
However, he somehow quickly fell out of favor, and the Lions decided to keep seven linebackers ahead of him, including much-maligned Thurston Armbrister, who is currently on the practice squad. As of now, Williams remains jobless, although he did have a tryout with the Giants earlier in the week.
So what exactly happened? How did Williams fall from grace so swiftly and unceremoniously? Head coach Jim Caldwell sidestepped the question when asked directly about Williams. “I won’t go down each and every individual and act as if there was some huge deficiency with each,” Caldwell said. “I can just tell you that the guys that we have that we choose are the best guys for us at this time.”
But could that possibly be true? How could a 2016 fifth-round draft pick, who started three games last year and was presumed to compete for the same spot this year, be truly worse than a guy like Steve Longa, who has never played a defensive snap in his short NFL career?
General manager Bob Quinn spoke to DetroitLions.com’s Tori Petry this week and provided a little insight. Though he didn’t talk directly about Williams, he gave some insight into his thought process with the linebacker depth.
“When it comes down to the linebacker position, the backups have to be top contributors on special teams,” Quinn said. “At the end of the day, the last four or five roster spots come out of the special teams.”
That certainly seems to fit the bill for guys like Longa and Nick Bellore. Bellore has been a special team standout for years, while Longa’s special teams skills are still budding.
But with Williams, we haven’t really seen that as a part of his repertoire yet. That said, the Lions certainly gave Williams the opportunity this preseason. Check out the amount of special teams snaps each fringe linebacker saw during this preseason.
Antwione Williams: 50 snaps
Steve Longa: 47 snaps
Paul Worrilow: 41 snaps (in three games)
Nick Bellore: 32 snaps (in three games)
Thurston Armbrister: 26 snaps (in two games)
So the Lions certainly gave Williams a chance to win himself a spot on the roster, especially in the final preseason game. Not only did he see a personal-high 18 special teams snaps against the Bills, but he also played 31 defensive snaps, including some deep into the second half of the game.
But Quinn’s decision went beyond special teams. Injuries are a big part of the game, and it would be careless to have a team full of backups that were only capable of special teams duties. That’s why another big factor for Quinn was versatility.
“[It] weighs heavily into what positions they can back up if they’re not a starter,” Quinn told Petry. “Can they backup multiple positions or are they just a backup at one of the three linebacker positions?”
This was a key factor, according to Quinn, in why the Lions felt that Paul Worrilow was much more fit to be the team’s first backup off the bench. “Paul’s a really smart, instinctive veteran player that can play multiple positions,” Quinn said. “He can play all three in our defense.”
Was that not the case with Williams? It’s hard to say with such limited game tape out there from the preseason, but there were no indications that the Lions were trying out the second-year player in any position other than strongside linebacker this season, despite the fact that the Lions tried to teach him all three positions last year.
I looked through every single quote from Jim Caldwell this offseason about Antwione Williams and not one mentioned his versatility, which is always one of Caldwell’s favorite talking points. Though Caldwell often gave the rote answer that Williams was looking much improved from last year, he never complimented his ability to play multiple positions.
Then, there was this telling quote from August 11: “You know, at that position he’s got some good competition, too. But he’s gotten better.”
Remember, Williams was a small-school prospect. Coming out of a four-year career at Georgia Southern, the learning curve was always going to be steep for the young prospect. After two offseasons, it appears the Lions didn’t see Williams catch on quick enough to justify keeping him aboard.
If there’s one thing Bob Quinn has made clear in two offseasons, it’s that he values special teams and versatility for his backups. It’s now obvious that the Lions believed Williams brought neither to the roster this season.