D.J. Williams is not a name many have heard of or thought about in a while. Chances are most didn’t pay him much attention even when he was in the NFL.
And that’s a shame.
Superstars are the players who receive the most shine. Part of being a superstar is getting recognition, though. That puts non-skill position players at an inherent disadvantage. Teams and the media always drum up quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends. On the defensive side, they’re more likely to highlight cornerbacks, safeties or defensive ends and linemen who rack up a ton of sacks.
In fact, other than offensive linemen, linebackers might be the NFL’s most underappreciated players in general. They don’t always have the interception, sack and tackle numbers to match other defensive positions, yet they arguably often have the toughest jobs.
Indeed, players in the secondary are tasked with covering lightning-quick receivers. And teams can also fall apart if they don’t have a strong pass rush on the defensive line. But linebackers, in most instances, are the quarterback of the defense. They set the tone by making calls at the line of scrimmage pre-snap, by calling audibles and by filling various responsibilities across the plane. They blitz, stop the run, break up passes and even sometimes venture out into the secondary.
This is not an easy job to master, particularly over a long period of time. But Williams did it well throughout his career, especially during his time with the Denver Broncos.
In his first eight years with the team, he only missed a total of eight games—and those absences came in two separate seasons. He also tallied an absurd 619 tackles, in addition to another 193 assisted tackles.
Denver has always had a reputation as a team that runs out gritty defenses. This held true for most of Williams’ tenure. He was a billboard for good health until he reached his age-30 season, and he vacillated between each of the three linebacker spots.
Despite placing in the top 10 of total tackles twice during his prime, Williams never made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. Don’t bother trying to explain that. It is inexplicable—and further illustration of just how underappreciated he was, even at the height of his powers, when he was spearheading a top-shelf defense for what was a semi-consistent playoff team.