BOSTON (CBS) – For the second time since the end of August, D.J. Williams was out of work. His original NFL employer, the Green Bay Packers, had let him go, before a second suitor, the Jacksonville Jaguars, came calling.
But Williams, a tight end, wasn’t long for the then winless Jags. Seven games into his stint with Jacksonville, he was released. Three weeks went by. Finally, a day after Williams was a face in the crowd at a Justin Timberlake concert in Memphis, he heard from another organization — the New England Patriots.
Within a week, he was the one performing before a crowd of 71,769 in Houston.
“With this business, you never know,” Williams said the following Wednesday, coming off a dozen snaps on special teams and offense. “You go from being at home, staying in shape, hoping to get a phone call and, boom, you get one. It was a great phone call, I’m glad I got it. This is a team that is very attractive as far as the offensive scheme goes for a position like mine. I was really excited and pumped up to be here.”
Williams spoke those words in front of his Gillette Stadium locker, a stall that would soon be cleared of his personal stuff. By the end of the day, he was released. Yet again, Williams was an NFL outsider, headed home to Arkansas.
Indeed, with this business, you never know.
Williams understands it all too well. On the ensuing Sunday afternoon, the rest of us were reminded about another harsh reality of a brutally-difficult game.
Six-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter, tight end extraordinaire Rob Gronkowski had his season ended by a hit on his right knee after making an over-the-shoulder catch against the Cleveland Browns.
A day later, the Patriots brought Williams back in their fold. Another two days after that, Williams was at the same locker he vacated just a week earlier. This time he was speaking into a few more microphones and cameras.
Still, Williams reiterated some of the same points. He noted, thankfully, how ex-college teammate Ryan Mallett and former Packers teammate Matthew Mulligan were helping him learn the Pats’ playbook. He also admitted to a better sense of direction in the New England offense.
“Being here before, getting a little head start, now I’m able to break the huddle and know if I need to go right or left,” he joked. “So that’s a big start.”
Williams On Picking Up The Patriots’ Playbook:
Wherever he lines up, Williams is thrilled to do it as a Patriot.
“When I was other places, you always heard about how New England was using their tight ends,” he said toward the end of his earlier tour of Foxborough. “Even places I were (before) tried to see how they could create mismatches and use their tight ends in different positions. It’s a trend that I feel started here, so it’s cool to be here and be part of it.”
Considered small as an NFL tight end, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Williams is excited about the Patriots’ knack of discovering possibilities where others see limitations.
“Looking from the outside in, when I was with other teams, that’s exactly it,” he said. “I got my short tight-end crew across the league. I’ve got good friends who are all 6-2 and wishing we were like 6-6. (We’d say), ‘See how the Patriots are using their guys.’
“That just goes down to coaching and knowing how to use the personnel that you have. I’m sure if they had a 6-10 guy, they’d figure out a way to use him and put him out on the field and let him be successful too.”
Of course, the Patriots had a 6-6, 265-pound freak of football nature who was put to use in ways unlike most, if not any, other tight ends. Now they go on without Gronk, who before his gruesome injury made an awesome impression on Williams.
“Not being on the team, you always heard about Gronk doing this, doing that,” Williams said on Dec. 4. “Being here, my personal opinion is that he’s just somebody who loves to play football.
“He loves making plays and he’s willing to do more than just run and catch. You don’t see that from a lot of tight ends in the NFL. You either have one or the other. He’s willing to stay in and block. He’s willing to go run a route. He’s willing to pass protect or leading up like a fullback. It’s very cool to see a tight end (like him), especially one who’s my age. Usually, you see that in veterans.”
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Neither Williams — who has nine pro receptions in 34 games — nor Mulligan nor Michael Hoomanawanui can possibly, singularly duplicate all that Gronkowski did. But as the Patriots adjust their offense to overcome the loss of Tom Brady’s biggest target, Williams is trying to grow his own game to contribute in his own way.
“I like being a student of the game. I’m trying to prepare to put myself in a good position to win,” he said. “People dub me as a pass-catching, route-running tight end, and I’ve excelled at that in the past. That’s usually what my niche is. But understanding technique and blocking, I know I’m undersized but it helps with leverage (to) work on your footsteps. Whatever you lack physically, you can make up for with preparation.”
Williams is eager to get to it, especially considering what he’s experienced in his brief career. Drafted by Green Bay in the fifth round of 2011, Williams has been in and out of work three times in this, his third NFL season. And he’s gone from what was a worst-place team to a first-place one.
“I’ve had a roller coaster of teams. I started out with the Packers (in 2011). That was the year they had just won the Super Bowl and won 13 straight games, so for a minute there, I didn’t know what it was like to lose. I was always part of a winning program,” Williams recounted. “Then I went to Jacksonville. I didn’t win a game while I was there. It’s very humbling and good to see both ends of the spectrum.”
MIAMI’S TIGHT END GETTING LOOSE
Before last Sunday, it would have been understandable, if not expected, to confuse the New Orleans Saints’ Cameron Jordan for the Cleveland Browns’ Jordan Cameron. After all, when both were drafted by their respective teams in 2011, the former got a call from the Browns seeking background information about the latter.
But following his nine receptions for 121 yards and a score as the AFC’s most productive tight end, there’s no mistaking Cameron for Jordan in New England, much less Northeast Ohio. As a converted college basketball player, Cameron leads AFC tight ends in receptions and receiving yards. He also ranks second in receiving touchdowns.
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Not far behind in all three categories is the next tight end on the Patriots’ radar, Miami’s Charles Clay. Like Cameron and Jordan, Clay broke into the NFL as part of the 2011 draft class. A sixth-round pick, he played seven positions at the University of Tulsa.
In October’s 27-17 loss at New England, Clay led the Dolphins with five receptions for 37 yards. More recently, he’s remained a favorite target of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, while inflicting significantly more damage to opposing defenses.
In helping the Dolphins to a 3-1 record the last four weeks, Clay made 24 catches for 294 yards and three TD. He enters this weekend as the conference’s third-leading tight end in receptions, yards and scores.
Yet, there’s another aspect to his game, unmeasured by numbers, that strikes New England head coach Bill Belichick the most.
“We know he has a lot of playmaking ability,” Belichick said Wednesday. “(Clay’s) fast, he’s very good with the ball in his hands after the catch. (But) I’d say the thing that’s impressed me the most about him is his blocking. He really competes hard as a blocker. He’s been matched up against defensive ends numerous times in the running game, guys like Charles Johnson from Carolina and guys like that, and he blocks them.
“He competes well with them. He’s definitely not afraid to stick his nose in there and be tough and competitive. I think he’s really a lot more than a receiving tight end. He’s a guy that’s a playmaker that helps them in the running game too.”
NO JOSHIN’ AROUND
The Patriots opened the season with three NFL newcomers in their receiving corps, two of whom made an early impact on their inaugural season together.
Despite missing three games, Aaron Dobson has already established the mark for most receiving yards (492) by a New England rookie under Belichick. Meanwhile, Kenbrell Thompkins’ four TD catches are more than any other undrafted rookie in team history.
December has signaled the emergence of the third of those first-year receivers, Josh Boyce.
With both Dobson and Thompkins unavailable due to injuries against the Browns, Boyce had a season-best three receptions for 49 yards. On the longest, he was able to shake-and-bake his way upfield for 22 yards.
“I think Josh did some good things and he had some production,” Belichick said. “There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement, and he’ll learn from that and hopefully have a good week of preparation this week. If he gets opportunities then he’ll be ready to take advantage of them. That’s a key thing for any young player, when you get opportunities to play or make plays, you have to take advantage of those and more will come.”
To date, many of Boyce’s opportunities to impress and improve have been impersonating opponents in practice.
“Josh is a smart guy that works hard. He’s got some, definitely, position flexibility. He knows a lot of assignments and different positions, “ Belichick continued. “He’s always ready to go when he’s had opportunities on the scout team to play the other team’s best receiver and that type of thing. He gets a lot of balls in some of those weeks in practice.
“You can see him getting better on the practice field, which has eventually led to some playing time in the kicking game first and then offensively. He’s been able to, to a certain degree, take the ball and run with it.”
“It’s been great for me, being able to work on little things and helping the defense out at the same time,” Boyce said Wednesday of his frequent role in practice.
Boyce has also become the team’s primary kick returner of late. When the Patriots fell behind the Texans, 10-0, two weeks ago in Houston, he set up their first score with a 41-yard return.
After handling only three kickoffs at TCU, Boyce is increasingly comfortable in the role. He acknowledges the influence of special teams captain Matthew Slater, who joins him deep on returns.
“(Slater) helps me out a lot,” Boyce says. “He tells me when to stay in (the end zone), when to bring it on out and what he’s seeing as a blocker.”
“(Assistant coaches) Scott (O’Brien) and Joe Judge have done a tremendous job of working with him and developing him, and I just try to be there as a third ear, if he has questions or whatever it may be,” Slater said. “But he’s been eager to learn, he’s been eager to take to coaching.
“Josh is trying to do everything the right way and it’s paying off for him.”
Slater is equally impressed by Boyce’s attitude and ability.
“He’s a very mature kid and he’s really worked hard at his craft,” said Slater, a 28-year-old veteran of six seasons and a second-generation pro. “Josh has a lot of God-given ability, a lot of talent back there. He knows how to use it and we have a lot of confidence back there. It’s been fun to see him kind of develop. It’s fun to see him get an opportunity now and show what he can do.
“He’s got loads of speed, he’s got great change of direction in the open field, good vision. Really, all the things you need to be successful in that role, he’s got. And he’s got a lot of courage, because you’ve got to have some courage to run up in there with those guys coming down to take your head off. He’s got all of it.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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