Shawn Williams is finally learning he doesn’t have to be Superman.
After trying to play through injuries most of last year, the Cincinnati Bengals strong safety said he is taking better care of himself and not worried about over-extending himself in his sixth season.
A third-round draft pick in 2013, Williams played 61 straight games to open his career before missing one game in 2016 – his first season as a starter. Last year, he was on and off the field with injuries but kept coming back and his production wasn’t what he thought it should have been as a result.
Williams finished last season with 34 tackles, one interception and three pass deflections in 11 games.
“You can’t play unless you are fully healthy, that’s what I learned last year,” Williams said. “You’ve got to sometimes sit out if you know it’s going to benefit you later. I’m the type of guy that’s going to push through no matter what’s hurting, and I think I went a little overboard with it last year and it caused a lot of injury that could have been prevented if I just took it easy or took time off.
“I only know one way to work and that’s to do it the right way, the hard way all the time so I have to learn to be smarter in that aspect. I’m getting older, and I have to understand what football takes out of your body and the length of the season. I think I’ve got it down and am doing a better job.”
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The Bengals defense was depleted by injury last season, and Williams said that played a factor in his attempts to keep playing.
He dislocated his elbow in a preseason game last August against Kansas City and missed the season opener but was back for Game 2. The injury reoccurred in Week 5 against the Bills but was back the next game with the bye week serving as his only downtime.
Prior to the second elbow injury, he hyperextended his knee in a loss at Green Bay and didn’t miss any time after that either.
Williams sat out one week after pulling his hamstring against Jacksonville in Game 8, returned and then missed three games before getting back on the field for the final three games. The tendon actually pulled off his muscle on his hamstring and he was still recovering until about two months ago.
“I just love football so much, I feel like I need to be out there so if there is anything I can possibly do to get out there, that’s what I tried to do,” Williams said. “… I pulled my hamstring like three times last year.”
Williams was unable to participate in team drills throughout spring workouts because of the hamstring injury, and in the meantime, second-round draft pick Jessie Bates had a chance to shine while running with the first-team defense.
Bates, an All-American out of Wake Forest, continues to impress in camp this summer and could be pushing Williams for the starting job at strong safety.
“The biggest thing for him is handling the different ins and outs of the game — the situation, the down and distance, field position and all those things,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “We have been pushing him in (the game) early, and you want to see him take command when he has to take command. He could end up being the guy back there real quick. You have to keep urging Jessie to move forward.”
Williams isn’t worried about the competition, though.
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Bates is listed as the No. 2 free safety behind George Iloka on the team’s first depth chart released last week, while Clayton Fejedelem sits behind Williams.
“The best guys are going to play, and I can’t control that,” Williams said. “I can only control what I do and that’s my effort and what I bring to the table and how I practice and how I produce. I know if I do that, I’m not feeling any pressure.”
The 27-year-old believes his best football is still ahead of him. He signed a four-year contract extension in 2016, which carries him through the 2020 season.
“I just want to be the best I can be and stay healthy, that’s going to take me a long way and I’ll be able to accomplish whatever personal goals I have,” he said. “I truly believe my best football is yet to come. I’m a way more developed player, smarter player and I still feel like there are a lot of good years to come. I want to make plays I should make and plays I shouldn’t be able to. I want to be the best at my position, and that will be the best Shawn Williams.”