Zion Williamson looks like a football player.
He always has, but the photo that circulated of him in the Pelicans’ weight room this week reignited those thoughts. If you didn’t know any better, you might guess that a Saints rookie was working out across the parking lot.
The question is if Williamson were to put on a helmet, what position would he play? There are cases to be made for several spots, but a few make much more sense than others. There are at least a couple that would make sense for the Saints.
Here is the case for those spots and why Williamson would compare favorably to his theoretical counterparts.
Williamson could be an elite red-zone threat right now if he put on a helmet and learned how to run two or three routes. With his leaping ability, soft hands and ability to box out, he would be deadly on fade routes and know how to use his body to post up and make catches in traffic. He could go up and get it in a way that few others in the league can.
While at Duke, Williamson allegedly recorded a vertical jump of 45 inches. It’s unclear if this was a standing vertical jump like players do at the combine or allowed to take a step before jumping. Either way, we know his leaping ability is otherworldly, and few players in the NFL could match him.
For the sake of comparison, the 6-foot-6 Jimmy Graham, who excelled at going up and pulling down passes in the red zone, had a vertical jump of 38.5 inches. If Williamson can jump 45 inches from a standing position, he would test better than every tight end at the combine since at least 2000 (Dorin Dickerson leads at 43.5 inches).
If this were a real thing, and Williamson was playing the position, odds are he’d be a little lighter. Tight ends typically don’t weigh 285 pounds. Since 2000, only four tight ends who have gone through the combine weighed more than 270 pounds, and none of them hit 280. Taking a little weight off (not too much because his ability to move at his weight is what makes him unique) would probably help Williamson with his long speed (which isn’t a problem now) and make him even more of a freak athlete.
At 6-foot-6 and 264 pounds, he would have the same measurements as Rob Gronkowski, who is widely regarded as one of the best tight ends of all time and runs a 4.68 40-yard dash.
Williamson is a significantly better athlete. If he came in around this size – or even a little heavier – he could probably have high-end speed while maintaining the strength needed to be a good blocker. Honestly, with his build, Williamson would probably be a good tackle with some training (a scout actually suggested this when I asked him to scout Williamson’s body type).
Just imagine tackling this guy in the open field. A defensive back isn’t getting it done once Williamson gets moving.
The position most people seem to see for Williamson is defensive end, and it is easy to see why.
His height and weight profile him as a legitimate three-down player who should be physical enough to mix it up in the running game. And his burst suggests that he would be an elite pass rusher capable of beating offensive tackles with speed and power (and eventually technique).
We’re looking at this as if Williamson has enough skills to play the positions. But there are ways he could win right now. One of the things that helps Williamson on the basketball court is his ability to maneuver around players, control his body, and do so with spatial awareness. Williamson could probably win an odd rep here or there as a speed rusher using these traits if someone taught him a few basic pass-rushing fundamentals and maneuvers (the spin move would play).
Williamson is also powerful enough that he could probably win a handful of reps by bull-rushing. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Marcus Davenport often wins the same way, and sometimes the violence of those plays pops off the screen, but Williamson can probably generate more drive and power into his first step. Just look at how much force he generates pushing off to jump (the video below doesn’t prove anything but Williamson is a total force).
Williamson’s quick first step is one of the things that makes him special as a basketball player, and it would translate to football and immediately be an elite trait. If he developed some snap anticipation, Williamson would occasionally find his way into the backfield before anyone touched him.
And, of course, his leaping ability and length would also be a significant bonus at this position. Williamson would be able to close throwing lanes and knock passes out of the air at a ridiculous level. Quarterbacks would have to be hyperaware of where Williamson was rushing from and perhaps even alter throws to ensure he wouldn’t knock passes out of the air.
The only question would be how much bend Williamson possesses as a pass rusher (picture a defensive end getting low to turn the corner), but he’s such a fluid athlete that it’s hard to imagine he would be a stiff pass rusher.
One person who works in player personnel floated the idea of putting Williamson at defensive tackle. He could use his first step to win quickly with speed or drive up into interior offensive linemen’s chests before they get their feet set. The person noted that Williamson could also gain a little weight and not suffer at this spot.
Williamson could probably be a very good tight end. But he has traits that would be rare at defensive end, and there is no comparison when it comes to positional value. His athletic profile also first more naturally on the edge. One other advantage: You could also move Williamson inside and take advantage of some of the benefits that would exist against interior offensive linemen.
And what says you couldn’t put Williamson at tight end when you get in the red zone and take advantage there? The Saints do keep talking about positionless football.