ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Sylvester Williams' ability to fire off the snap was just one of the many skills that made him a first-round pick in 2013.
Selected 28th overall by the Broncos -- who never expected him to be on the board when they picked -- Williams didn't quite burst onto the NFL scene like he used to on college centers and guards. He played just 100 defensive snaps through Denver's first ten games and was inactive in three of those games. The Broncos' subsequent two picks from 2013, second-rounder Montee Ball and third-rounder Kayvon Webster, combined for 473 snaps over the same stretch, not counting special teams reps.
Not a banner start for a first-round pick, but the limited playing time was largely dictated by a talented rotation in front of him. Not only did free-agent addition Terrance Knighton blossom in his starting role as the season progressed, but the team returned high-usage veterans from 2012 in Kevin Vickerson and Mitch Unrein in addition to 2012 fifth-round pick Malik Jackson.
"It was a humbling experience for me," Williams said near the end of OTAs. "It just let me know and understand that I've got to work my butt off to get where I want to be."
Williams' opportunity expanded dramatically after Vickerson went down with a hip injury in Week 12 against New England, putting Williams in the starting lineup. He nearly quadrupled his participation to that point in the remaining nine games, racking up 196 snaps in the regular season's final six contests and 93 more in the playoffs, the latter just nine fewer than Knighton.
With the extra time and experience, Williams put up his best performances late in the year, notably his back-to-back 5-tackle games in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Chargers and Texans respectively. He grabbed a sack in each game and also made three tackles for loss in Houston.
"I always feel I can do better," Williams said. "I had some great games and I had some games where I could have done better. But overall, I felt like I did okay and I think I can build off of what I did the last few games of the year."
The second-year player from North Carolina has had the chance to accelerate that progression through the offseason. He naturally would have earned more reps in his second year anyway, but with Vickerson still rehabbing his injury, Williams has been a starter from day one through OTAs and minicamp. In addition to soaking in the reps for his own experience, Williams has used every rep to build chemistry with Knighton.
"They have a real good relationship," Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said of the duo during minicamp. "I think it grew at the end of last year and I think they've tried to kind of pick up where they left off as they finished the year."
"We just want to make sure everybody's moving forward together," Knighton said during OTAs. "Me and 'Sly' have been working with the ones, so I go as far as he goes, he goes as far as I go. Nobody wants to leave each other behind -- we want to move together as a group."
The no-contact structure this time of year isn't ideal for gauging the play of linemen -- as Williams puts it, "You can't battle in the trenches like you want to so you've just got to become technique sound." As a result, his development in year two won't be easily measured until at least training camp. Right now, he's focusing on how he uses his hands and hips while studying film of players around the league who "have dominated this game."
"He's becoming more of himself in his role," Vickerson said of Williams in June. "He's learning the plays more and being more fast and playing with and identifying blocks well. That's all you can ask from the young guys, to have this transition go from one level to the next."
It will be Vickerson's return to health that may have the greatest impact on Williams' role in 2014. Both players should be key parts of the line's rotation -- don't expect the nearly 4-to-1 snap disparity between the two before Vickerson was hurt last year -- but Williams will take the lead if the 10-year vet isn't fully healthy when the season starts. With his talent and youth, Williams may earn the lion's share of the reps anyway. Now well acquainted with the battle for playing time, he certainly won't be shy about holding down his starting spot.
"I understand there are great players in this league," Williams said. "If you want to be a starter or a guy in a rotation, you've got to go out there and work hard every day and be productive, otherwise you've got a chance of losing your job."
"I'm going to hold it down and I'm going to work my butt off these next few weeks and come back at training camp and prove myself and do what I've got to do."