At $63 million over three years ($21 million annually) with $45 million guaranteed the New York Giants this offseason bestowed upon Leonard Williams a contract that carries the expectation he will perform like an elite, difference-making defensive lineman.
Williams did that in 2020 with career bests in sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (14), quarterback hits (30), and hurries (12). He finished fifth in the league among 53 qualifying interior defensive lineman in pass rush pressure percentage (7.8) and 15th in pass rush win rate (14.3 percent).
The 2020 season was, by far, the most productive of Williams’ six-year NFL career. Can he produce a similar season in 2021? Let’s discuss that in the latest of our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the Giants will bring to training camp.
Position: Defensive line
Contract: Year 1 of three-year, $63 million deal | Guaranteed: $45 million | 2021 cap hit: $11 million
Career to date
Why do I think about Evan Engram when I consider Williams’ career path? Until last season, Williams had at times shown the talent that convinced the New York Jets to select him No. 6 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. He made the All-Rookie Team in 2015 and the Pro Bowl in 2016, but never posted truly elite production.
That’s why the Jets were willing to part with him in 2019. It’s why Giants GM Dave Gettleman was roundly criticized for parting with third- and fifth-round picks to get an underperforming free-agent-to-be in the middle of a season in which the Giants had no chance to make the playoffs.
Gettleman and the Giants were placing a bet on what Williams, just 25 at the time of the trade, could be. What he had hinted at in his first two seasons, and what he had shown at USC that made him a top 10 draft pick.
The Giants won that bet. At least in 2020.
Now, they have placed another bet. They have made Williams the fourth-highest paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL (tied with DeForest Bucker) in terms of average annual salary. That means 2020 cannot be an anomoly for Williams. They are paying him to be a consistent difference-maker.
Will they get what they are paying for?
Before the 2020 season Williams had compiled 17.5 sacks over five seasons, with a high of 7.0 in 2016. Is it reasonable to anticipate double-digit sack production from him on an annual basis?
After he signed the contract, Williams told New York media via Zoom that he did not believe the contract carried raised expectations.
“I think if I allow the pressure to sink in or allow outside noise to start sinking in, then it’s going to take away that fun that I was just talking about that allowed me to play so well,” Williams said. “I don’t want to think about what type of pressure or what other people are thinking. I just want to be the best for my team, be a good leader and give this team as much as I can. That’s the reason why they brought me back for that. I don’t want to put too much pressure on it.”
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer does not want Williams thinking about proving anything to anyone. He just wants him to play.
“He’s always had the ability,” Spencer said late in the 2020 season. “I think he was so consumed early in his career with proving to everybody that he was the guy he was supposed to be. I’ve completely removed that in his thinking. I don’t talk to him about that. I talk to him about where we are now, the here and now.”
Giants fans, though, will want a reasonable facsimile, at least, of the player they saw last season. The Giants organization will as well, especially with Williams carrying cap hits totaling more than $25 million in the second and third years of the deal.
When asked about the big contract for Williams, Gettleman said “maybe 11.5 sacks, maybe that was part of” why they gave it to him.
Sacks, though, are not the be-all and end-all of judging a defensive lineman.
“You know, he’s very versatile, he’s a legitimate inside pass rusher and he really blossomed,” Gettleman said. “He loves being here and we love having him, so that was part of the decision.”
What the Giants need from Williams is impact. They need him to pressure opposing quarterbacks. They need him to make plays against the run. It is difficult to put a number on that. You know impact, though, when you see it. I don’t see any reason why Williams shouldn’t be able to provide it in 2021, as long as he remains healthy.
One thing we know for sure about Williams. He will absolutely continue to live his best life. These are from Williams’ offseason adventures.