RICHMOND — On a scorching Sunday morning, Trent Williams crunched pads as much as he has all training camp. The Washington Redskins left tackle, returning from a right knee injury, was cleared for full contact the day before, and this practice he seemed more active. Williams worked into the first-team offense for a few snaps as it scrimmaged the first-team defense.
In one-on-one drills, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound tackle squared off with two of the team’s top edge rushers in Preston Smith and Jonathan Allen. He felt like a part of the team again, but the six-time Pro Bowl honoree knew he wasn’t yet back to top form.
“I’m still knocking the rust off,” Williams said. “I don’t feel like I’m back to being me, but every day is getting better. My eyes are starting to adapt to guys moving 100 miles per hour. I don’t know if there’s anything left other than to get more reps.”
When Williams didn’t participate in team activities at practice, backup tackle Ty Nsekhe filled in, as he did last season when the Redskins tried to rest Williams before eventually placing him on injured reserve in mid-December. Nsekhe may have taken the lion’s share of the reps so far, as Williams works on the strength and stability of his knee, but it’s still unclear who will start at left tackle against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., in the preseason opener on Thursday. Regardless, Williams is expected to be ready for the season opener at Arizona on Sept. 9.
“To get that thing fixed and to watch him rehab and get himself ready to play is just a testament to why he is the best tackle in the NFL,” Coach Jay Gruden said.
This recovery period is unfamiliar territory for Williams, 30, because the surgery he had Dec. 29 was, he said, the first of his life. Since the Redskins picked Williams fourth overall out of Oklahoma in 2010, he had played through almost every injury, missing just three games from 2012 to 2015. In 2011 and 2016, the NFL suspended Williams four games for violating its substance abuse policy, but nothing seemed to stop Williams from receiving the respect of his peers — he was voted the league’s 47th-best player in the 2017 NFL top 100 — and his franchise. In 2015, Williams signed a five-year, $66 million extension that includes an option after this season.
Last fall, though, Williams ran into an ailment he couldn’t play through. In October, in the first quarter of a loss to Kansas City, a player rolled up on the back of Williams’s right foot and wrenched his knee. He tried to get up, but his leg buckled and he fell down. Trainers helped him to the sideline, where he received treatment and returned to play after missing four snaps. Yet, in the following weeks and months, Williams rarely practiced and appeared limited in games. The team sat him on a short week for its Thanksgiving Day game against the New York Giants, and he returned for the next two games but the knee became untenable.
“That was a bad injury,” Gruden said. “Hats off to him for fighting through it, because he saw what kind of injuries we had on the line and, if we took him off the line for some of those games, I don’t know who would have played, quite frankly.”
On Sunday, Gruden emphasized work on the goal line and in short-yardage situations, where this team struggled to convert last season. In his time spent off to the side, observing, Williams noticed his teammates respond to the ratcheted-up competition. The team went full-go, Williams said, “which we’ve hardly ever done [in camp] in the past.” He mentioned that, at this speed, he’s still regaining his feel on blocks because he wasn’t accustomed to sitting out. Williams is still nervous about the knee — “I’d be lying if I said I’m not” — but he accepted this is a part of playing this position in this sport.
“It’s the nature of it,” Williams said. “The mental part is one of the hardest things to get over, but I’m prepared. I have a strong mentality.”