Stardom is still a new concept for defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
The former No. 6 overall pick was seen as a bust after four years with the New York Jets, and struggled initially to justify the third-round pick and eventual $63 million contract the New York Giants invested in him.
But now, on the first day of Giants training camp, the only narrative surrounding Williams is how he will follow up his breakout 2020 season. That doesn’t mean his mindset has changed.
“You know, you try not to focus on money, you try not to focus on a contract or anything like that that you’re involved in or what to expect,” Williams said. “You just really want to focus on the grind, focus on your specific task, your specific ability and what you can bring to the team and how you can make the team better.
“I want to continue to improve my ability,” Williams said. “I want to continue to put my best foot forward and bring the best I can to this team. I’m not focused on numbers. I’m focusing on just having another great season.”
Last year, Williams emerged as the face of New York’s defensive line. He led the team with 11.5 sacks, eight more than any of his teammates. His goal for this offseason is to become a more “vocal” leader and continue to grow his football IQ.
“I think that’s something that [defensive coordinator] Pat Graham talks about a lot is adapt or die,” Williams said. “I was just talking about picking up on teams’ schemes, watching film a little bit more, being able to learn what my opponent is going to give me before the snap. Just picking up on small little reads and stuff like that.”
This is also Williams’ first ‘normal’ training camp with the Giants, at least compared to last year’s shortened affair. So far, he has nothing but praise for head coach Joe Judge’s approach.
“[Judge] doesn’t really care if you’re a star player or anyone else, he treats everyone the same,” Williams said. “I think that’s what makes this team grow, I think it keeps everyone on an equal playing field. He’s not going to let one player get away with something that he might not let the next person get away with. It creates a good competition. I love the way Coach Judge coaches us and how hard he is on everyone to get better.”
Williams also has a high opinion of Graham, who last year helped the Giants defense rank in the top ten in points allowed for the first time since 2016.
“Not trying to relate to last year, but we all love playing under Pat Graham and we love how smart he is and what he brings to the game,” Williams said. “He doesn’t put everybody in the same position, he knows what type of tools he has, what type of guys he has, and he puts his players in the best ability to play the best that they can. I think that makes players’ confidence rise and the more confident you are, the better you play.”
Though he won’t admit it, there is even more pressure on Williams this season after the departure of Dalvin Tomlinson — Williams says they’ll “always be friends” — and the expectation that this team will break the Giants’ five-year playoff drought.
“I think we have a very high-talented team, Williams said. “I don’t want to make predictions, like I said. It just starts today. We have to come out here and compete. Hopefully we’ll see where we end up.”
Williams is, however, willing to be more concrete when discussing his own future with the Giants. He is aware of the excellent pass rushers that came before him, and does not take their legacy lightly.
“I mean, obviously, they’ve had great defensive linemen come through here for years now,” Williams said. “Hopefully, I’m going to be a part of that tradition for a longer time now. I’ve been able to talk with Justin Tuck and guys like Michael Strahan and those guys. We’ve obviously had a great defense with the Giants for a long time now, so we’ll continue to build on that.”