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Does Marcus Williams deserve to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL?

And can the Saints afford him?

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints are in a pickle. In fact, they have been in a financial pickle for the last four years, as they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table to try and win that elusive second Lombardi trophy. They restructured contracts, signed expensive free agents (Malcolm Jenkins, Janoris Jenkins), extended Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and expensive and controversial guard/tackle Andrus Peat. Doing so left them a gazillion dollars over the cap. In fac, the Saints have, by a fairly wide margin, the worst cap situation in the entire NFL as you can see here, courtesy of Spotrac.

Now, as Malcolm X once said, the chickens have come home to roost. The Saints have little-to-no money to spend, they are (likely) losing their longtime All-World quarterback Drew Brees to retirement and have some big time unrestricted free agents about to hit the market, most notably defensive end Trey Hendrickson and free safety Marcus Williams.

The replacement for Hendrickson is possibly already on the roster, in Marcus Davenport, who has yet to fully tap into his immense potential and who New Orleans hopes could have a breakout season next year a la Trey Hendrickson from this past season. The replacement for Marcus Williams, however? Not on the Saints’ roster by a long shot.

Williams is a bit of an enigmatic case: Despite being most infamously remembered for being the player who whiffed on the tackle of then-Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs during the so-called “Minneapolis Miracle,” the Saints’ four-year player has been one of the best free safeties in the NFL over his first four seasons in the NFL. And he has done so while a grand total of $6,240,439. For you and me, and in the grand scheme of life, that is a lot of money, obviously. But as far as market value is concerned, the Saints have been reaping the benefits of having such a high caliber safety playing on a rookie contract.

Below are the current top-five highest paid safeties in the NFL, courtesy of overthecap.com.

For the fun of the exercise, let us look at Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals, the top-earning safety in the game at this very moment, and do an in-depth comparison with Marcus Williams through the 2020 NFL season.

  • Draft Selection: As coincidence would have it, both Baker and Williams were selected in round 2 of the 2017 NFL draft, Baker with the 36th overall pick, and Williams with the 42nd.
  • Age: Baker turned 25 this past January, while Williams turns 25 in September.
  • Height/Weight: Baker is 5’9” and 195 lb, while Williams is 6’1” and 195 lb.
  • Position: Both Baker and Williams are safeties, however Baker predominantly plays the role of strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage, while Williams is more often a “centerfielder” free safety.
  • Career Statistics (courtesy of stathead.com via pro-football-reference.com):

In this section, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both Baker and Williams have been available for their teams, playing 61 and 60 games, respectively. As a strong safety, Baker has unsurprisingly recorded more solo tackles than Williams (330 vs. 187), more assisted tackles (111 vs. 59), quarterback hits (10 vs. 0) and sacks (5.5 vs. 1.0). Baker is a physical safety, whose impact on the Cardinals’ defense is immense as an “in-the-box” player that is not afraid to mix it up at the line of scrimmage. That stellar play saw Arizona reward him with a lucrative four-year $59 million extension, of which $22,100,000 is fully guaranteed.

On the other hand, being required to roam deep as the last line of defense for his team, Williams has had 13 interceptions in four years, versus only 2 for Baker. That a plus-11 in interceptions, which for a defensive back are game-changing plays, often more impactful than tackles. Overall, Williams has generated 15 turnovers in his career (13 picks, 2 forced fumbles) vs. only 7 for Baker (2 picks, 5 forced fumbles). Both players have scored one touchdown in their career thus far.

The AV stat in the table (which stands for Approximate Value) gives Budda Baker the nod against Marcus Williams, as the higher the approximate value, the better the player. However, some would argue that Earl Thomas (free safety) was more impactful in the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom heydays, than Kam Chancellor who was an all-world strong safety. If like me you are nerdly interested in knowing more about the AV, you can find more here.

Marcus Williams may not like it, but in Approximate Value, he is not close to deserving to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL. In fact, a closer examination of the top-10 highest-paid safeties in the NFL shows that is more in the range of the Minnesota Vikings’ safety Anthony Harris than he is comparable to Budda Baker. The numbers in the table below (courtesy of stathead.com) show that Harris and Williams have very comparable career statistics, albeit with Harris having played two more years.

The good news for Williams? Anthony Harris was the eighth highest-paid safety in the NFL in 2020, with a $11,441,000 fully guaranteed salary, which is the range in which I expect the Saints’ free agent safety’s next contract to be. Williams has youth on his side, and a high number of interceptions, which fits the ballhawk reputation he brought with him from the University of Utah. Will the Saints be willing to pay him nearly $12 million-per-year to remain with the team? Can they even afford that? Let the fun of the 2021 offseason begin in NOLA!


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