Williams, the 11th overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft, spent his entire rookie season on the sideline while he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. That didn't stop him, however, from listening to sideline conversations and gleaning as much information as possible. Whenever it was time for Williams to suit up, he wanted to be ready.
The Bengals need him to be ready in 2020. Williams is slated to enter the year as the starting left tackle, an unsettled position since Cincinnati let Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth walk after the 2016 season.
As if that wasn't significant enough, Williams and the offensive line will be tasked with protecting rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, this year's No. 1 overall pick who will dictate the franchise's future.
But given the lofty expectations, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound left tackle from Alabama isn't feeling the pressure as he enters his first healthy season.
"I see it as an opportunity, and that motivates me," Williams said this week. "I want to prove them right and the Bengals, the team, the [Brown] family and give everyone a great left tackle for years to come. That's obviously been my goal since the day I came here."
While Burrow's importance and the future of the quarterback position has been touted throughout the offseason, Williams' outlook is arguably just as important to the franchise's long-term success.
Cincinnati has struggled to find an adequate replacement for Whitworth, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams and made the Pro Bowl.
The Bengals tried to slide 2015 first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi from right tackle over to left tackle. After the 2017 season, it was clear Ogbuehi wasn't the answer, so in March 2018 Cincinnati acquired Cordy Glenn from the Buffalo Bills in a trade.
That worked for one season before the situation turned into a dumpster fire in 2019. Glenn reported a concussion during the 2019 season and got into an impasse with the coaching staff midway through the year that resulted in a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. The two sides patched up the relationship well enough that Glenn appeared in the final six games of the season, but he was eventually released.
Williams could represent some much-needed stability at one of the most important positions on any roster. He helped the Crimson Tide win the 2017 national championship and was a unanimous All-America selection in 2018.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Tuesday that Williams' high standards have been "crystal clear" during his assignments and in the technique he shows during walkthrough drills.
"When you're not full speed it's easy to go through the motions," Taylor said. "Jonah's not that guy. Jonah does it the right way every single time. And he's a great example for the other players to watch when they see the tape."
Williams spent the offseason working out in San Diego at TYME Performance, where former San Francisco 49ers All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Staley trained before he retired in April. In addition to taking any tips from Staley about blocking in the outside zone scheme the Bengals also use, Williams emphasized working in the weight room as he targeted mobility and quickness.
"Really what ended up happening with him is he got a year to reshape his body," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. "I think he's changed his body. He looks like a pro; he doesn't look like a college kid anymore."
If Williams can play well in 2020, he can not only shore up an offensive line that ranked 31st in Pass Block Win Rate in 2019 (an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen), but he could also become a foundational player at a key position.
It's a challenge Williams is embracing as he wears pads for the first time with the Bengals.
"It kind of got sidelined a bit last year, but it's still my goal now, and I think I'm better prepared than ever to do it," Williams said. "So I wouldn't say there's a ton of pressure, but I feel like I'm eager. I'm excited to do that."