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John DeShazier: P.J. Williams ready for real NFL action

Second-year corner missed all of rookie season because of injury

White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – Hamstrung by a hamstring.

Those were the words on the stamp that was affixed to the rookie season of New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams, a third-round pick (No. 78 overall) in 2015 who didn't last through training camp, and never played in a regular-season game, due to a hamstring injury that ultimately led to him being placed on injured reserve.

"It was definitely tough," Williams said. "It was tough for me. That's the longest I ever didn't play since I started playing football, so I had to find something in me to be able to lock in and still be able to focus on some things and just understand it was a good thing for me, and next year I've got to come on strong."

Next year is here for Williams, and he has been true to his word: He has come on strong.

Whether it has been OTAs, minicamp or training camp – the Saints completed their seventh day of practice  Thursday at The Greenbrier – Williams consistently has blanketed receivers. Whether he has lined up at left corner or in the slot, the pass breakups and passes defensed the breaks on the ball and the recovery speed, have been consistent.

Any reluctance to be overly generous with praise due to the nature of the event quickly has been whittled away by Williams, whose repetition count has benefitted from the absence of Keenan Lewis (Lewis returned to practice  Wednesday for the first time since suffering a hip injury in the 10th game of last season, but sat out Thursday's practice).

"I think he is a lot further along now," Coach Sean Payton said. "He had the injury last year and it is hard to kind of keep up with the speed of the install (when you are hurt). His offseason has been good, he's healthy, and I think he's out there competing at a really high level. There's a difference with (what) he knows defensively and his ability to pick things up and then when that happens, you play a little bit faster.

"He's received a lot of work. He's receiving a ton of reps. I think he has pretty good football awareness. He's played not only outside but also in some nickel situations, over the slot. I think he's improving."

The Saints didn't expect any less than that from Williams, when they picked him after he played three seasons at Florida State. He had four interceptions and 18 passes defensed for the Seminoles.

He said that his missed season, while disappointing, wasn't a waste by any stretch.

"I think it benefitted me a whole lot, because a lot of the rookies, they come in and they play a little bit and go through the growing pains," he said. "I got to do it off the field and just learn a whole lot, learn the NFL, learn the defense and be able to come this year. I'm much more prepared, feel much better and I'm just ready.

"I feel very comfortable. I know all the plays, I know my techniques and the little times when I don't do them, I know what I didn't do. I feel like I'm doing good out there and I feel like I can be a great player."

Of course, there's work to be done in order to accomplish that. This preseason, Williams figures to be one of the young Saints cornerbacks who receives his NFL initiation, finally, under the lights and on an NFL field.

He said that he's ready for the challenge.

"I feel like I'm a lot more prepared than I was last year, physically, mentally and all that," he said. "So I feel like I can go out there and get baptized, or I can go out there and lock everybody up. I feel like I can do good."

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