TAMPA — By almost any measure, Alabama’s Jonah Williams is considered the best left tackle in college football. Except one. His arms are too short for some to believe he can play the same position in the NFL.
Williams’ arms were 33 5/8 inches Wednesday Thursday at the NFL scouting combine, meaning the 6-4, 305-pound All American may have to play guard at the next level.
Holding out his right arm and stretching his fingers during a news conference, Williams insisted there were no shortcomings in his game.
“So if my fingers were an eighth of an inch longer, it might be good enough,” Williams said. “But I think the way that I play defines me as a football player.”
This is what the draft process can do to a player. Williams is considered the best left tackle in college football, a three-year starter for Alabama, which spits out NFL talent like a PEZ dispenser. He has been projected in some early mock drafts as a top-five pick. In fact, some had him going to the Bucs at No. 5.
And make no mistake, the Bucs need help on the offensive line. Not only is left tackle Donovan Smith a free agent, but Caleb Benenoch was a turnstile at right guard last season and starter Demar Dotson is entering his 11th season.
The Bucs couldn’t run the ball last season. Or the season before that. And while some of that should be laid at the feet of running backs like rookie Ronald Jones, in fairness, too many ball carriers were hit in the backfield.
“Obviously, we’ve got to do a little bit of work up front,” coach Bruce Arians said. “It seemed like every time (Jones) got the ball someone was catching him right in the backfield.”
Ideally, offensive tackles have an arm length of 34 ½ inches or longer. But it didn’t prevent Williams from making 43 consecutive starts for the Crimson Tide.
If most teams now see Williams as a guard, he’s likely to go somewhere in the 10-15 range in the first round. To his credit, Williams is not refusing to play another position if asked.
“I’m confident in my abilities. I know what I can do on the field,” Williams said. “I’m confident in my preparation. I think I’m a talented individual with good athleticism. I know I can out-prepare and out-work anyone and that’s the way I’ve been successful in college and that’s the way I’ll be successful in the NFL.
“I’ll play wherever a team wants me to play. I was the best tackle in college football so I know I can play at the next level. But I’m a competitor.”
There’s a good chance that when the Bucs are on the clock with the No. 5 overall pick, their phone will be ringing with opportunities to trade down to secure additional picks. From there, Williams will be on the list of players they would have to consider. Another player would be Florida tackle Jawaan Taylor.
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Smith is likely to be given the franchise player tag by March 5, making the Bucs pay him about $14 million on a one-year contract. Who knows what happens to him after 2019.
You could paint a scenario where Williams starts for a year at right guard, then slides to one of the tackle positions.
At 6-foot-5, 301 pounds, Williams has tremendous feet and great technique.
“Watch the film,” Williams said. “I don’t have to come up here and be defensive and tell everyone they’re wrong. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If you think there’s a certain benchmark you have to pass to be a tackle and that’s your opinion, I’m not going to change that and my arms aren’t going to grow longer.”
Alabama running back Damien Harris benefited from the holes Williams created in the SEC the past three years. “He establishes the run game,” Harris said. “He kind of sets the tone in the pass protection. So he does everything the right way. He’s the best tackle in the country. If I was a GM, he’d be my No. 1 pick. He’s a great player.”
It feels as if he’s always been. Williams graduated early from high school to enroll at Alabama and participate in spring ball against four-year starters.
If there is a downside to all his preparation, it’s that he can react too slowly while taking inventory of all the things he learned about his opponent.
“I would say the double-edged sword of that is I can over-analyze things, over-think things and play a little hesitantly,” Williams said.
But the current cause for pause is something out of Williams’ control. The things the Bucs or any other NFL team has to answer is whether it trusts him to protect the blindside of the franchise quarterback.
“I think there’s an additional amount of pressure,” Williams said. “But I don’t think you can think about that as the play goes. I think it’s like if you’re driving and worried about crashing, you’re not going to be focused on the road as well. But I think it really comes down to executing your assignment. Because if I block the guy, the quarterback is going to be fine.”
Williams will likely be fine, too. But starting with the draft, the NFL can be a game of inches.