Though he has yet to earn a Pro Bowl nomination, the Saints’ Marcus Williams has established himself as one of the best young safeties in the NFL. A member of New Orleans’ loaded 2017 draft class that also included Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, and Trey Hendrickson, Williams’ presence in the secondary has been instrumental in the Saints’ defensive success over his first four years in the league.
Williams, a free safety, is a prototypical centerfielder and ball-hawker whose one true weakness coming into the 2020 season was his tackling ability. But he made great strides in that regard, as Pro Football Focus charged him with just two missed tackles last year. PFF ranked Williams as the seventh-best safety in the game in 2020, and while it was especially bullish on his run defense, he also scored well in coverage.
Between that and his playmaking abilities — he has recorded 13 interceptions and 30 passes defensed over his first four years in the league — Williams will be a hot commodity if the Saints let him hit the open market. And New Orleans might not have a choice. The club’s salary cap problems have been well-documented, and we heard over the weekend that re-signing Hendrickson — whose 13.5 sacks were the second-most in the NFL last season — may not be possible.
The same goes for Williams. The Utah product will justifiably be aiming for the top of the safety market, which is currently headed by the Cardinals’ Budda Baker‘s $14.75MM average annual value. The Bears’ Eddie Jackson ($14.6MM) and the Titans’ Kevin Byard ($14.1MM) are not too far behind in terms of AAV, and all three players landed guarantees north of $30MM. Theoretically, GM Mickey Loomis could backload a Williams contract in an effort to fit him under the 2021 salary cap, but Loomis will have a number of difficult decisions to make, and even a backloaded deal might be too rich for the Saints at this point.
It seems that the franchise tag, which would carry a projected value of about $10.5MM, is definitely out of the question since the Saints would need to carry that entire amount on their cap in 2021. So if the Saints can’t bring back Williams, where might he end up?
The Raiders are one obvious potential landing spot. Las Vegas recently hired Gus Bradley as its new DC, and Bradley was one of the architects of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary that saw Earl Thomas playing centerfield against opposing offenses. The Raiders’ offense is in pretty good shape, and after a series of straightforward cuts, they will have enough cap space to sign a quality free agent or two. Williams would team with Johnathan Abram to form a young and talented safety tandem.
The Lions and Jaguars were the two worst teams in the league in 2020 in terms of total defense, and while both clubs are very much in the rebuilding phase, Williams is young enough that he could still be a part of the next competitive outfits in Detroit or Jacksonville. Those teams have plenty of areas of need, but a strong back-end defender is a worthwhile target for any defense.
One way or another, Williams is about to get paid. He might not be the most talked-about FA at this point, but assuming the Saints don’t hit him with the franchise tag, he will be one of the first players off the board when free agency officially opens next month.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.