Todd Bowles knew there was a chance, even if the odds weren't necessarily in his favor.
Once the Raiders had settled on Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper with the fourth overall choice in this year's draft, there was only one team that stood between the Jets and coveted USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. Washington had a need along the defensive line, and most draft analysts considered it almost a foregone conclusion that Williams should be -- and would be -- the pick.
And then came the biggest shocker of the draft: Washington general manager Scot McCloughan passed on Williams and took Iowa tackle/guard Brandon Scherff.
The celebration inside the Jets' draft room was immediate. "I wasn't sure. You think you have a shot at him," Bowles recalled Wednesday. "It was like, 'Wow, this guy fell to six.' Without hesitation, we took him, and we're very happy with him."
Williams has looked terrific so far, with 18 tackles and half a sack in his first month in the NFL. He's part of a defensive line rotation that looks to be among the best in the league -- if not the best -- and his future looks bright with the Jets. On Sunday, he matches up against none other than Scherff, who has been moved inside to right guard.
Grudge match? Not quite.
Unlike a lot of players who take it personally when a team passes on them in the draft, Williams holds no ill will toward Washington for taking Scherff. In fact, he's glad it happened this way.
"People ask me if I'm trying to get payback, but I can't really say it's payback, because they really didn't do anything to me," Williams said of Washington's draft-day decision. "They basically just chose what they needed."
Besides, Williams now believes that he ended up in a more preferable situation by joining the Jets. "I think it worked out better," Williams said. "I think this is the best place I could have landed out of all the top teams."
He said this knowing that he came to a team already loaded at the position, what with the defensive line already featuring Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison.
"I'm just fortunate to be here, and I'm glad they picked me, even though they already have a stout defensive line," Williams said. "It paid off because I've been learning from all these guys."
Williams has looked quite comfortable so far, which is an excellent sign for a player at his position. It's often a time-consuming transition for young defensive linemen. But to see Williams adjust so quickly makes you realize that he will almost surely reach his upside much earlier than most. Even if his coaches are taking more of a wait-and-see approach. "I expect a lot more and he expected a lot more from himself," defensive line coach Pepper Johnson said.
"That's more important than what I expect from him. He has to graduate. He has to try to continue to progress and get better with his awareness. If I didn't think he could do it, then I would be highly upset right now. But I think he can [do it]."One thing Williams is doing much better now than he did when he first got here is playing with more technique, especially with his hands.
"All defensive linemen are a lot better when they play with their hands," Johnson said. "But he's kind of night and day, and he sees it. He's making a lot of plays when he's playing with his hands. Now, he just has to do it more often."
Williams looks forward to his next test, and knows he'll be challenged by his draft classmate.
"Scherff has done well," Williams said. "They have a big offensive line. They can move the pile. They have a strong belief in their running game, and we have to stop the run, so it's going to be a good matchup."
For Williams, his game-within-the-game matchup against Scherff could be a deciding factor. He plans on giving the Jets more reason to celebrate their good fortune on draft day.