Aaron Williams feels like himself again.
After two disappointing seasons at cornerback, Williams shifted to safety this season for the Buffalo Bills – a winning move for both player and team.
“I don’t know who that guy was the last two years. That guy is gone,” Williams said of his first two years. “I’m back.”
Williams’ personal resurgence coincided with an overall turnaround for the Buffalo defense. Under coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills finished 10th in total yards allowed, improved from 22nd in 2012, and allowed three fewer points per game. They also finished second in the league in sacks (with 57) and interceptions (23).
“Team-wise, I feel like we improved from last year, but at the same time we didn’t make the playoffs,” Williams said. “But we have improved in numbers, and we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Williams made 82 tackles and four interceptions in 14 games, missing the final two of the year because of a rib injury. He had just 64 tackles and one interception in his first two seasons combined.
“I put a stamp on how my game is supposed to be … the way the real Aaron Williams is supposed to be,” he said. “The swagger, the leadership … that’s me.”
It’s safe to say that Williams has regained that must-have trait for any defensive back – confidence. He’s not shy about expressing his belief about where he and teammate Jairus Byrd rank in the league.
“Jairus and I are the best safety duo in the NFL, in my opinion,” Williams said. “I can look at Jairus and not say a word and know what he’s thinking, and he can do the same with me on the field. … Being with Byrd the last three years … I know what kind of moves or jumps or disguises he wants to do without even talking to him. Things like that really help us out.”
Williams being able to rescue his career makes him one candidate for most “pleasant surprise” of the 2013 Bills, but he’s not the only one. Also in the running are:
• LB Jerry Hughes: Acquired in a trade with the Colts right after the draft for middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, Hughes was a revelation as a complementary pass rusher to Mario Williams. The former first-round pick finished with a career-high 10 sacks.
Sheppard, meanwhile, made 46 tackles – the same number as Hughes – and just one sack in Indianapolis.
“At the time they thought it was going to be a win-win for everybody. I’m not sure how they feel about it now, but we’re very excited to have Jerry Hughes and we’re expecting bigger things from him next year,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said.
Hughes’ confidence was boosted by the Bills’ interest in acquiring him.
“To have someone come out and seek me for a trade and then tell me when I get here they’re going to allow me to play – and to actually see that through throughout the entire season – is definitely a huge confidence boost for me,” he said.
Hughes played 52.8 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps this season, an average of 37.8 per game.
“They let me play. They let me see the field,” Hughes said. “That was probably the biggest thing. I think that’s probably the most snaps I’ve had in my entire career in the NFL. When I was able to get out there on the field, I was able to go and just have fun.”
In a league that pays pass rushers handsomely, Hughes is heading into the final season of his rookie contract.
• CB Nickell Robey: Pettine referred to Robey during the season as “found money,” an apt description for the undrafted free agent.
Robey stepped into the nickel cornerback role from the start of the season and appeared in all 16 games, making two starts. He finished with 39 tackles, three sacks and an interception that he returned for a touchdown.
“We did a great job this season, despite all the adversity we went through as far as injuries and things like that,” Robey said. “We’re going to get over that and next year start off with a good tone.”
Robey played 53.1 percent of the defensive snaps, and earned a base salary of $405,000.
• K Dan Carpenter: The Bills were Carpenter’s fourth team last summer after being cut by Miami, Arizona and the New York Jets.
He ended up having one of the finest seasons in franchise history by a place kicker, finishing with 33 field goals, tied with Steve Christie for the most in a single season. Carpenter’s success rate of 91.67 percent is the second best in team history behind Rian Lindell’s 92 percent success rate in 2006.
“Points are hard to come by in this league, so anytime we’re close enough to get points it’s an opportunity,” Carpenter said. “I’m happy to go out there and help.”
Carpenter will become an unrestricted free agent in March and Whaley said the Bills will pursue a contract extension with him.