Milton Williams has been one of the Eagles’ more hyped rookies this summer, and Thursday night in his first NFL game he showed why.
The 22-year-old Williams, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound combo defensive lineman from Louisiana Tech, displayed his power and athleticism in 23 snaps, mostly with the second-team defense, in the preseason opener against the Steelers at the Linc.
“When I woke up I was kind of nervous, just finally getting that moment of playing in my first NFL game,” he said. “Once I played the first snap, I kind of got settled in a little bit, got a little bit more comfortable and tried to do what I know. I’ve been playing football my whole life, so a dream come true tonight.”
Williams has worked both at defensive tackle and defensive end this summer, unusual for a young kid. Generally, coaches try not to overload rookies with more than one position. But Williams is a smart kid and is picking things up. He has the power to muscle guards inside and the athleticism to get around tackles outside.
“I’m pretty comfortable playing both,” he said after the game. “They trust me to be able to know both spots, and I’m doing my best to get as much confidence as I can and let them know that whenever they need to move me around they can do that.
“They want to move me around and see where I’m more productive and see what my skills are and what I’m best at. Playing inside and outside, just keep going back and forth, keep getting better at both.”
This is a deep, veteran defensive line, but Williams is earning himself playing time.
Williams worked mainly at defensive end Thursday night and had several wow moments. You could see his power as he overwhelmed the Steelers’ backup tackles several times. On one rep, he didn’t get a sack but he generated the pressure that led to a T.Y. McGill sack in the second quarter.
“I was working the tackle, I was working the bull rush on him, and I was going to get him, but the guard came and got me and it freed up T.Y.,” he said. “I’m happy for him. Celebrated with him afterwards.”
Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon seems to be really intrigued by Williams outside, where he’s gotten his most reps at practice.
It’s pretty revealing how high the Eagles are on Williams that they’re giving him outside reps when they already have Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Derek Barnett and Ryan Kerrigan as edge rushers.
“I think playing inside is a little easier because there’s not too much space,” Williams said. “On the edge, you have a little more space so you’ve got to close the space and then work your move.
“I’ve been playing defensive end for a long time, my last year in college, that’s when I actually moved inside for the first time so I played the whole year and I got confident with that, so I’m still going off of that.”
Gannon kept the defense simple and vanilla Thursday night and that gave young players like Williams the chance to go out and show what they can do without being mentally overloaded.
“He just wants me to be aggressive, assert myself in the game, use my speed, my power and just be physical,” Williams said. “That’s his message always. Be physical, strike and the rest will handle itself.”
While everybody who watched him may have been impressed with Williams, one person wasn’t.
“I feel like I played OK,” he said. “It’s not up to how I want to look every down but watch the tape and see what I can do better next time.”
What does he need to work on?
“Just technique things,” he said. “Keeping my pad level down, keeping my eyes clean, make sure I’m looking at the right things, play my keys, play my technique and things like that. You can always get better at those things.”
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