In the NFL’s ever-cycling nature, the priority of positions is always shifting. One year it’s an edge rusher. Then it’s a cornerback. Right now, the lynchpin of a defense is good safety play, as it is harder than ever to defend the ridiculous quarterbacks throwing around the NFL.
The New Orleans Saints were fifth in the league against the pass last year, giving up a shade under 215 yards per game. That was thanks in large part to the play of Marcus Williams, a product of the 2017 draft that also brought the Saints Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk and Alvin Kamara (not to mention late bloomer Trey Hendrickson).
For the Saints in this offseason, re-signing Williams has to be a priority. It won’t be easy. He has the stats to ask for a solid contract. But Williams is a foundational part of a Saints defense that has been towards the top of the league since 2017. He’s earned his contract, and he should be prioritized above the likes of Hendrickson.
Pro Football Focus currently has Williams as its third best defensive back in free agency, trailing only Justin Simmons and Anthony Harris. He’s also in the 90th percentile of graded DBs. Most importantly, however, he makes Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins and C.J. Gardner-Johnson better, and allows them to be them in coverage.
So, what tangible things does Williams bring to the Saints defense?
Sometimes, as a safety, you just have to break your coverage and make a read. That’s precisely what Williams does on this breakup of a deep pass to Calvin Ridley running a wheel from the top of the formation.
What you see out of this play is more or less what you get. Ridley is matched up one on one with Lattimore, with Williams lurking high as the single high safety.
While it’s easy to say Ryan is telegraphing this throw, it’s a one-read play in single coverage. Effectively, this ball is getting to Ridley. Williams, as you can see, is still sitting high. Ridley hasn’t fully released into his route yet.
As Ryan throws the ball, Williams goes full bore towards Ridley. The result:
A good, CLEAN hit on Ridley to break up a nice throw after Lattimore was beat on the outside. There’s no hesitation, no trepidation. Just great instincts to break towards the ball and prevent a big play.
The best way to illustrate Williams’ presence on the back end is to show what happens when he ISN’T there.
This is a play that will be very familiar to a lot of Saints fans, as it’s one of the first times it became entirely possible that the defense was just bad.
This is a lot of guesswork, but from how everyone reacted to this touchdown pass to Mike Williams, it sure looks like the play called for a Cover 2 defense on this 3rd and 10. Williams is going to run a straight fly, and as the play unfolds, you’ll see P.J. Williams crash down into the slot.
Bafflingly, the cornerback here is still looking in the backfield at Justin Herbert as Williams runs by him. This could also possibly be a quarters defense gone horribly wrong, but even so, P.J. Williams needs to be responsible for the receiver over the top and trust the guys underneath to handle the shallower in route. Marcus Williams actually sees where this play is going before anyone.
It’s a bad play. From everyone.
Williams also has the raw numbers to back up his strong play. He has 13 interceptions in the past four years, and 30 passes defended. He plays the run as well as the pass, and he ties a Saints defense full of aggressive corners together.
He’s the most important player for the Saints to re-sign this offseason, and it isn’t that close. His consistency, especially over the past three years, has been key in the Saints’ defensive success. He finished last season with just two missed tackles. And he plays well alongside the likes of Lattimore and Demario Davis.
While it’s entirely possible the Saints end up not being able to afford him, the disappointment would come if they prioritized less proven options over Williams. He’s been consistent for four years at this point. If they want to keep him, it’s time to put up.
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