Jets' Quincy Williams coming into his own

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Thursday, October 19, 2023

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets linebacker Quincy Williams was unable to accompany his brother to the Pro Bowl last February in Las Vegas, but he received daily updates via FaceTime and text messages.

What happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas, thanks to defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl and wanted his older brother to experience the pregame festivities and atmosphere from long distance.

"I felt like I was there," Quincy told ESPN. "He sent me pictures and stuff like that and I promised him, I was like, 'Bro, next year, we're both going to be in the Pro Bowl.'"

They had similar conversations as kids growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, vowing to each other they'd both play in the NFL one day. They made that happen, winding up on the same team, and now their mission is to turn the 2024 Pro Bowl in Orlando into a Williams family vacation.

A handful of brother tandems have made the Pro Bowl in the same year -- Jason and Travis Kelce, Stefon and Trevon Diggs, T.J. and J.J. Watt, to name a few -- but to do it as teammates? It hasn't happened since Ray and Cece Hare in 1942 for Washington, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

There's still a lot of season left, but Quincy already has 60 tackles (seventh in the NFL), two sacks, one forced fumble and five passes defensed. He recovered a fumble in Sunday's 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, about nine minutes after Quinnen made his first career interception. They became the first pair of brothers to each have a takeaway in the same game for a team since Erin and E.J. Henderson in 2010 for the Minnesota Vikings.

"He's coming into his own as a leader and as an explosive player and All Pro-caliber linebacker that we, in this organization, know he can be," Quinnen said. "It's super fun to see him live up to those standards and expectations."

Sure, now it's fun, but this hasn't been a joy ride for Quincy, who was overlooked by Power 5 schools, fired by his first NFL team and undervalued (in his opinion) by the Jets' front office in contract negotiations.

IN THE FOOTBALL-CRAZED city of Birmingham, Quincy, 27, was the lesser known of the Williams brothers. Quinnen, two years his junior, was a blue-chip recruit who had big-time college coaches battling for his services. He eventually said yes to Nick Saban and went on to an all-America career at Alabama.

Quincy was a terrific player at Wenonah High School who got some nibbles from the big schools, but he was a late academic qualifier and fielded only one scholarship offer -- Murray State. In 2010, the Williams brothers' mother died of breast cancer and the emotional toll distracted Quincy from his studies as a high school freshman.

"My freshman year kind of hit me over the head," said Quincy, who felt like he was playing catch-up for the rest of high school.

At Murray State, he went from inside linebacker to safety to outside linebacker, impressing the coaches with his speed and punishing tackles. Former Murray State defensive coordinator Jake Johnson recalled a play in which a linebacker named Kendrick Catis was on the verge of making a tackle, "and here comes Quincy out of freaking nowhere and just levels the ball carrier -- I mean, just absolutely levels him."

Catis, nicknamed Ironhead, looked up and said, "Man, he stole my tackle." The coaches got a good laugh out of that one.

A few games into his senior year, Williams started to draw the interest of NFL scouts after racking up several double-digit tackle performances. The same scouts who had expressed skepticism because of his size (listed at 5-foot-11) were now showing up so frequently that Johnson had to clear his schedule every day at noon to meet with them.

Johnson told each one the same thing: Williams was a remarkably explosive player with a strong work ethic. He was so into fitness, Johnson said, that he brought a foam roller to meetings so he could stretch out his body while listening and watching film. He was always active, always trying to find ways to improve his speed.

"I think he's a great example of a guy who kept his head down and kept working," said Johnson, now the defensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky. "He didn't listen to anybody and knew in his heart of hearts what he was, and he was going to go out there and prove it."

In the 2019 draft, Quinnen was selected third overall by the Jets. Ninety-five picks later, in the third round, Quincy was picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who caught some flak. Who takes a 5-foot-11 linebacker from Murray State? He was the 63rd-rated linebacker prospect, according to one draft expert.

The general manager who drafted Quincy, David Caldwell, was replaced after the 2020 season. Eventually, so was Quincy, who was released at the end of the 2021 preseason by new GM Trent Baalke and new coach Urban Meyer.

Williams was crushed, which is to say he felt like he got tackled by himself. He was on waivers for 24 hours.

"I had that little window of being cut," he said, "and I never wanted to feel like that again."

BEFORE THE 2019 draft, Robert Saleh was given an assignment by his then-boss, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan: Compile a list of your favorite linebacker prospects for a potential Day-3 pick. Saleh, the 49ers' defensive coordinator, included Williams on his short list.

Williams was taken on Day 2 -- the 49ers wound up taking linebacker Dre Greenlaw in the fifth round -- but Saleh remembered the name and the talent when he got to the Jets in 2021. When Williams hit waivers, the Jets, with the No. 2 priority, pounced.

At first, it seemed like nothing more than a cool story -- Williams brothers reunited -- but it turned into much more than that as Quincy harnessed his speed and learned to play within the structure of the defense.

"He's the fastest linebacker I've ever seen, I'm not going to lie to you," said tackle Mekhi Becton, who blocked Williams every day in training camp. "He's damn near running like a DB."

In Week 4, Williams recorded the fourth-fastest speed in the league for a linebacker while making a tackle, clocking 20.6 mph on the GPS, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He ran across the formation and chased down Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco on a sweep.

"There's not a better 'backer in the NFL right now," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said after the Kansas City game.

"A game wrecker," Saleh said.

A few days later, Williams did just that -- he wrecked the game for the Denver Broncos, running down Russell Wilson for a strip sack late in the fourth quarter. The fumble was returned for a touchdown by Bryce Hall, clinching a 31-21 victory. It was Williams' second sack of the quarter.

"This year," he said, "I'm more in control of my speed."

In past years, Williams showed a tendency to over-run plays and get caught out of position. He operated with the mindset he used in college: See ball, get ball.

He sought advice from fellow linebacker C.J. Mosley, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who stressed a cerebral approach to the position. Recalling those conversations, Williams said Mosley taught him "how to be a pro and how to be a Pro Bowler."

Before the season, Williams focused on preparation and nutrition, which is to say he devoured film study and changed his eating habits. The team dietician created a plan that, he believes, boosts endurance and injury prevention. It's a protein-heavy diet, but it varies from week to week. For instance: Before traveling to Denver, he loaded up on carbs to combat the high altitude.

Always devoted to one vegetable -- broccoli -- Williams now eats different veggies. He's willing to try new dishes such as bison, something he never could've imagined himself eating. It all came together in 2022, as Williams played well enough to land a new contract from the Jets.

But that caused some hard feelings.

ON THE VERGE of free agency, Williams opted to stay with the Jets, signing a three-year, $18 million contract in March. Life-changing money, to be sure, but the tenor of the negotiations left a bitter taste.

"I'm going to be honest with you," he said, "the contract situation threw me off, for real, for real."

Williams didn't agree with the player comps the Jets mentioned in negotiations, saying, "Listening to the players they thought were better than me, that kind of put a chip on my shoulder."

That happens a lot in negotiations; teams use comps to determine the value of a player. The Jets presented their perceived "ceiling" for Williams.

"I didn't really like that because I make my own ceiling," he said.

Snubbed by the big schools, cut by the Jaguars and arguably underestimated by his own team, Williams has no shortage of motivation. He has channeled that into production. Among linebackers, he ranks in the top 10 in run stuffs, passes defensed and pressure percentage.

"He's a good freaking linebacker," Saleh said.

Thankful that he has Williams, Saleh texted Caldwell -- the GM who drafted him -- and included a photo of Quincy.

"Hey, man, you were right," Saleh texted.

Williams appreciates the plaudits, but he has bigger things on his mind -- team success and the Pro Bowl. He's done with FaceTime; he wants to be there in person with his little brother.

"That," he said, "is the goal this year."

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