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Inside The Pick: Taylor's First Choice A Character Builder

This is the scene the Bengals envisioned at No. 11.
This is the scene the Bengals envisioned at No. 11.

It doesn't happen often in a divisional rivalry as nasty as Bengals-Steelers.

But when the Steelers bolted up to No. 10, a spot in front of them during Thursday's first round of the NFL Draft with a mega trade from No. 20, the Bengals heaved a sigh of relief.

"You had the sense Pittsburgh would probably take Devin Bush," said Zac Taylor after emerging from helping make his first draft pick as head coach.

But offensive line coach Jim Turner, who has been viewing Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams as his top guy for weeks now, wouldn't breathe easy until Taylor handed the phone to him and he almost squeezed it in two as he talked to Williams.

"I don't know about you, but I'm fired up. Are you fired up? I'm fired up. I'm happy for you and I'm happy for us," Turner said.

Williams assured him, "I'm as fired up as you."

The draft room phone didn't get fired up until about 15 minutes before the Bengals put the pick for some inquiries about trading back a few spots. But the answer was with the priority Williams still there, they'd sit and take him. If he wasn't there…

"I still thought he could be gone," said Turner, still looking a little amazed about a half-hour after the deed was done. "The kid was absolutely the best of the guys we worked out. He was No. 1. Nobody had taken a lineman to this point and we took him. It's obvious that he was No. 1 on our board and the guy we wanted up front."

The Bengals had high regard for Bush, the quicksilver linebacker from Michigan that would hit a sweet spot for their defensive problems in the middle of the field. But it probably came down to a size thing. At 5-11, 234 pounds, size was about the only nick on him. But it was a nick. As the draft process went on, the top offensive linemen became more alluring because in a draft swimming with a lot of unknowns, they saw them as safe, solid picks that could help right away in a position of need.

And they felt Williams, even though he had some size questions, too, at 302 pounds, had the most impact. He has a 6-4 frame and immeasurable character to fill out and sets up to be the left tackle of the future, although when that is depends on his development and other spots since left tackle Cordy Glenn is intact at this point. Until then, Williams can play anywhere. Except maybe center.

And Taylor made it clear he wasn't anointing Williams anything. But he indicated he's starting somewhere because he also said, "He's done a great job at left tackle for them. Certainly he can play guard. He has great flexibility here, so he enables us to get our five best linemen on the field. So we're excited to get him into the mix."

After ten picks, the Bengals, almost unbelievably, had their pick of any offensive lineman they wanted. Taylor laughed when someone observed, "They're not all that smooth, you know."

"Smooth," Taylor said, "is a one-man term."

NFL.com's Bucky Brooks says Jonah Williams is a potential Pro Bowler early in his career.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks says Jonah Williams is a potential Pro Bowler early in his career.

Two quarterbacks going before No. 11 helped. So did Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell sneaking into the top five in Oakland. When the Giants shocked the world and took Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at No. 6 to leave pass rushers Josh Allen and Ed Oliver on the board, a few smiles broke out.

A lineman they would get.

And the pick had a whiff of one of the great line picks in Bengals' history when they plucked left tackle Andrew Whitworth in the 2006 second round out of LSU. Size was his knock the other way. He was so big (6-7, 330 pounds), teams refused to believe he could be athletic enough to play left tackle. But the Bengals watched the tape and saw how he handled the nation's best pass rushers in the lightning fast SEC.

That's kind of what the Bengals were watching. How Williams used his 302 pounds to block in that same SEC.

"A phenomenal athlete. The thing you've got to remember is he blocks everybody in the SEC," said Turner, channeling 2006. "So you always go back to these little pieces on players, and you're like, 'Well, this isn't good. This isn't good physically.' But then when you watch the tape, if he blocks all the best players in the country that are getting picked in the first round, he's a first-round pick, and he's going to be able to do it at this level.

"He played at Alabama, so not only is he blocking everybody in the SEC, he blocks everybody in practices, and practices against some of the best players in the country every day. So, it's a big part of why he is the polished player that he is."

Williams at the combine.
Williams at the combine.

Williams is every new head coach's dream first pick. Not only is he an all SEC player at a premium position, but he helps Taylor set up his culture with character that has already received national attention. A recent story documented how Williams created a spread sheet to simulate what he'd face on Saturday.

"That's what this is about," Turner said. "That's the hardest thing about the draft. You're drafting somebody, but you don't know who he is. So when every box is checked in the character category, obviously you have to have the talent first. But once you get that, you don't know what you're getting and so when you've got a guy that you've done all the research and it just fits and this is the right character guy, you've got to take him."

Turner put his time in. He spent time with him informally at the NFL scouting combine in interviews at the train station adjoining the players' hotel. The club had an informal 15-minute interview with Williams at the combine. Taylor and Turner were at his Pro Day in Alabama and Turner flew in the night before to spend extra time with him. He figures he spent about two hours with Williams in the class room.

"You sit in a room with him and you can feel his passion for the game," Turner said. "I was really impressed with him. We were all impressed."

In his conference call with the Cincinnati media shortly after the pick, the character was on display as Williams outlined his regimen in the seventh grade at Maynard Middle School in Atlanta and how he'd be at school at 5 a.m. to lift and he'd wait an hour for the coach to open it up at 6.

"I ended up building a weight room in my basement because the weight room (at school) wasn't always open in the summer and over Christmas break," Williams said. "So there's a weight room of two by fours, metal poles and Craigslist weights."

Taylor opened his first draft news conference with the intangibles: "High football IQ. Great football character. The game means so much to him and that's the kind of player we're looking for on this team. Fire away."

Taylor says left tackle is his natural position, but that's a story for another time. They're just glad they got him in the building.

"You're happy when your guy is there," Taylor said of his first calls looking for a trade back. "You want to make sure that you can grab him."

Images of the Bengals' 2019 first round pick, offensive tackle Jonah Williams from the NFL combine and his career at Alabama.

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