Tight End Goes Far And Wide
Oft-Traveled Backup Lands in New England
Foxborough, Mass. — D. J. Williams finally has his packing strategy down. Now he’d like to master the Patriots playbook.
The tight end has been cut three times in just over three months. And he’s with New England again after Rob Gronkowski was sidelined for the season.
It’s Williams’ latest destination in a year when he’s had to be ready to travel to find work.
“I used to have two bags. I got it down to one,” he said Wednesday. “I YouTubed some packing techniques.”
Williams spent his first two pro seasons with the Green Bay Packers before being cut Aug. 31. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him the next day and used him in seven games before releasing him Nov. 4. The Patriots claimed him Nov. 27, used him sparingly in one game, then cut him Dec. 4 before re-signing him Monday.
He’s wrestling with the playbook again and trying not to confuse it with those in Green Bay and Jacksonville.
Fortunately, tight end Matthew Mulligan — who also was signed, cut and re-signed by the Patriots this season — was teammates with Williams in Green Bay this past offseason. When Williams struggles to understand a play, Mulligan tells him which Packers call it’s similar to.
“It’s just the terminology,” Williams said. “The concepts are pretty much the same.”
His previous stint with the Patriots gave him a head start on the complex offense.
“Now I’m able to break the huddle and know if I need to go right or left,” Williams said with a smile. “So that’s a big start.”
He returned to his home in Arkansas after being cut by the Patriots then was flying back last Sunday even before Gronkowski was hurt. He said he hoped to be at the Patriots’ game, a 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns, but his flight was delayed. So he was in the air when Gronkowski tore his ACL and damaged his MCL in the third quarter, ending his season.
“They had Wi-Fi on the plane, so I was able to keep track of the game,” Williams said. “It was unfortunate. I’d only been here a week and understand how great of a guy (Gronkowski) is already. Talk about a guy who’s been through so much with injuries.”
Gronkowski missed the first six games this year after undergoing four operations on his broken left forearm and one on his back. He caught 37 passes for 560 yards in the next six games then had two receptions for 32 yards before being carted off the field Sunday.
“I really wasn’t like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to get a spot,’ ” Williams said. “I really did genuinely feel upset for him.”
He and Mulligan are the Patriots’ only two healthy tight ends going into Sunday’s game at Miami.
The Patriots (10-3) would clinch their 10th AFC East title in 11 seasons with a win or tie against the division rival Dolphins (7-6).
Williams was drafted by the Packers out of Arkansas in the fifth round in 2011, two rounds after the Patriots took his college quarterback, Ryan Mallett.
Williams set the school record for tight ends with 152 receptions and won the John Mackey Award given to the nation’s top college tight end.
“He’s a smart football player,” Mallett said. “I always knew where he was going to be and I never had to worry about that.”
So far, though, Williams has only nine catches for 70 yards as a pro. But Mallett encouraged him after Patriots coach Bill Belichick cut him.
“I don’t know what Bill had in mind, but I know that he’s a good player,” Mallett said. “I said, ‘Stay in shape. You never know if we’re going to need you.’ ”
Still, Williams said, “it makes it difficult when you have your first two years go smooth and now you’re going through this whole transition.”
“You have to keep a positive mindset or else you’re going to go down that rabbit hole and not come back,” he added.
Then the Patriots called.
“I just need to really get in that playbook,” Williams said, “and understand what’s going on.”