FOXBORO, Mass. — D.J. Williams could never quite separate himself in a crowded tight end group in Green Bay.
The Packers already had Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless, two other “flex” tight ends, when Williams was taken in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft. He could never pass Tom Crabtree either, who started five games for the Buccaneers this season after signing a two-year deal. Williams finished his brief career with the Packers with just nine catches for 70 yards.
Ankle and hamstring injuries during the 2012 season didn’t help Williams, nor did all the competition he faced during training camp and preseason in 2013. Williams was cut on Aug. 31 by Green Bay. Matthew Mulligan was also part of those final cuts.
“We were in a tight tight end position,” Williams said. “Our position battle, there was like, six of us there and a few of us kinda were the same type. I was kind of up and down during preseason. I think that was it. They were very serious about their competition battles. And if a guy is going up and down, unless you’re the No. 1 guy that they’re paying, whoever is hot at the moment is usually who they go with. That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing bitter about it. It’s just straight up.”
Williams caught on with the Jaguars, but the tight end didn’t have any more success with that franchise. He lasted just seven games, starting one, and didn’t pull in any receptions. Williams couldn’t quite explain what didn’t work out with the Jaguars.
“I don’t know. It was kind of just, I don’t know if I was there just — it was hard to explain,” Williams said. “Let’s just say that, I was a little caught off guard and felt like it was just a team that is gonna — I see being extremely good down the road. It might be hard to see it, but they have a great head coach. I think they see where they want to go. And they’re starting to build it the way they want to build it. They’re going to be successful down the road. It just didn’t work out there for me.”
Williams was originally signed by the Patriots to replace an injured Michael Hoomanawanui on Nov. 26. When Hoomanawanui was able to practice again, Williams was gone. But the Patriots needed the undersized tight end back in New England when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season with a torn ACL and MCL.
“It’s a great opportunity. I will say that,” Williams said. “It’s just really late in the year. So you don’t really have time to go through OTAs or preseason or all that good stuff. At the same time, it’s very exciting and awesome to “All right, let me get my stuff ready.” We’re trying to get a playoff spot next week. It’s fun, interesting. You have to be very focused and tuned in to everything. But it’s a whole lot better than sitting home. I’ll tell you that for sure.”
Williams doesn’t have a full summer to learn New England’s complex playbook, but he does have a golden opportunity without many able bodies in front of him. Mulligan and Hoomanawanui are known more for their blocking prowess than their pass-catching abilities, whereas Williams won the Mackey Award his senior season at Arkansas based on his receiving.
Williams’ quarterback with the Razorbacks was Patriots backup Ryan Mallett. Williams said Mallett is helping him pick up Josh McDaniels‘ offense by putting it in Arkansas terms.
Hopes were high for Williams when he was coming out of school. Due to his size and speed, Williams was compared to Aaron Hernandez, who had just had a successful rookie season in New England. Williams didn’t set his hopes too high for the draft, though.
“No. I really wasn’t too sure. College award don’t really mean anything, it’s just, I was undersized. I wasn’t blazing fast or anything like that,” Williams said. “I was just one of those guys. A system guy. I was just waiting to see where I would fit. I felt good in my first few years in Green Bay, the way they had their system and everything. Didn’t work out there. I felt good about this system too, so I’m hoping I can hop on that learning curve quick, which I’m starting to do so and be effective and be consistent.”
If the Patriots are looking for a receiving threat at the position, Williams could be that guy. He’s jumped around the league in his short three-year career, but he wouldn’t be the first player to succeed under Bill Belichick that has been around the block a few times.
There were other tight ends available when Williams was re-signed by the Patriots, including old friends Daniel Fells and David Thomas, so there must have been something Belichick liked in Williams the first time around.