Dallas Cowboys guard Connor Williams could be a solid New York Jets option
One of the New York Jets’ biggest holes entering the offseason is the right guard position. New York has four other projected offensive line starters under contract – left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, center Connor McGovern, tackle Mekhi Becton, and tackle George Fant – but needs to fill the right guard spot with incumbent right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif hitting free agency.
There are many ways the Jets can go about filling this hole. Re-signing Duvernay-Tardif (who seemingly is eager to return) is one option. New York could also look to the draft.
Another path is to pay up for an outside free agent to take the role.
The guard market is fairly strong in free agency this year. Brandon Scherff (Commanders), Laken Tomlinson (49ers), Austin Corbett (Rams), James Daniels (Bears), Andrew Norwell (Jaguars), and Alex Cappa (Buccaneers) are among the headliners of a good class.
Perhaps the most underrated option of the group is Dallas Cowboys left guard Connor Williams.
Williams, who will turn 25 in May, is coming off of a contract year that was labeled a disappointment by many Cowboys fans and observers.
The 2018 second-round pick was mainly criticized for his propensity to commit penalties. Williams led the NFL with 14 penalties in the regular season and then committed two more in Dallas’ playoff loss to San Francisco.
As I scanned the Cowboys media landscape looking for articles that speculated about Williams’ future, pretty much everyone seems to be in agreement that Williams will be headed elsewhere in 2021. Dallas has a brutal cap situation and Williams appears to be unanimously despised for his efforts in 2021.
With so much heat being directed Williams’ way, I was curious to see whether Williams’ overall numbers matched up with his reputation – and I was shocked to find that they were pretty darn good.
I’m not sure why Williams isn’t being regarded more positively by Cowboys fans and media. Numbers aren’t everything (far from it), but it is worth noting that Williams produced at a superb level in 2021 despite his many penalties.
His statistical performance makes him a quietly intriguing option for the Jets.
Williams’ pass-protection numbers are elite. According to Pro Football Focus, he coughed up only 13 pressures on 569 pass-blocking snaps in 2021. That’s a pressure rate of just 2.28%, ranking third-best among qualified guards behind only Joe Thuney (1.99%) and Kevin Zeitler (2.20%).
What makes Williams’ pass-protection skill-set particularly appealing for the Jets is the fact that he would plug one of the Jets’ biggest pass-blocking woes: handling stunts and blitzes.
In 2021, the Jets allowed 74 pressures on plays that were not “true pass sets”, per PFF. That ranked as the sixth-most in the NFL. Essentially, this tells us that New York gave up a lot of pressures that were not converted through a true one-on-one battle.
Williams is fantastic in this area. He allowed only one pressure on 326 non-true-pass-set reps in 2021. That’s a pressure rate of 0.31%, the best in the NFL among 66 qualified guards.
Although executing pickups is the best part of his pass-blocking game from a statistical standpoint, Williams is still great in one-on-one situations. He allowed a pressure rate of 4.94% on true pass sets, ranking sixth-best among qualified guards.
I don’t know about you, but I’d deal with a few extra penalties for this level of pass protection.
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A great athlete and highly-ranked zone blocker, Williams seems to be a good fit for the Jets’ run scheme.
Williams earned a zone-blocking grade of 76.1 at PFF in 2021, ranking 17th out of 59 qualified guards. That should be no surprise considering his athletic ability. He earned a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 9.15 out of 10 at the 2018 NFL Draft Combine.
At 6-foot-5 and 298 pounds with excellent numbers in the vertical jump (34 inches), broad jump (112 inches), and 40-yard dash (5.05 seconds), Williams is a prototype fit for the Jets’ offensive scheme when you look at the typical measurables of offensive guards that have played under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta/San Francisco and now Mike LaFleur in New York.
Penalty troubles may be an outlier
Committing 14 penalties in one year is bad. Very bad, in fact. There’s no way around it.
With that being said, it’s not as if penalties have always been a major issue for Williams. He was perfectly fine in the penalty department before 2021.
Williams had 15 penalties over 2,561 regular-season offensive snaps from 2018-20. That’s an average of one penalty every 170.7 snaps, which isn’t bad at all. The league average rate for guards in 2021 was one penalty per 175.3 snaps. At that rate, the league-average guard would be expected to commit 14.6 penalties over Williams’ 2,561 snaps during that span. He matched that expectancy with his total of 15.
It’s unlikely that Williams’ penalty issues remain at such a drastic level in the future considering how much of an outlier his 2021 penalty total was.
Plus, Williams wasn’t alone in this problem. The Cowboys had a penalty epidemic in 2021 that affected most of the roster.
Dallas led the NFL with 141 penalties (10 more than any other team) after having only 96 in 2020 (13th-most). Fellow offensive linemen Terrence Steele and La’el Collins also set career-worsts in snaps-per-penalty rates while center Tyler Biadasz led all centers with 11 penalties.
I would expect Williams to come back down to the mean in this category going forward.
Williams was only 20 years old on the day he was drafted. He was a young entry into the league and should be expected to have a longer growth curve.
Just 24 years old throughout this past season, Williams improved his numbers for the fourth consecutive season.
Check out Williams’ year-by-year improvements in both phases:
- 2018: 6.26% allowed pressure rate, 56.7 PFF run-block grade
- 2019: 4.93% allowed pressure rate, 60.8 PFF run-block grade
- 2020: 4.06% allowed pressure rate, 71.3 PFF run-block grade
- 2021: 2.28% allowed pressure rate, 76.0 PFF run-block grade
Another promising aspect of Williams’ 2021 season is how he responded after being benched.
Dallas replaced Williams with Connor McGovern (no relation to the Jets’ Connor McGovern) at left guard from Weeks 11-14. McGovern struggled, giving up 12 pressures in those four games – one fewer than Williams allowed all season.
Williams returned to the starting lineup in Week 15 and showed substantial progress to finish the year. Over the final four games of the regular season, Williams allowed only two pressures on 127 pass-block snaps (1.20%) and earned an overall PFF grade of 81.8 that ranked sixth-best among all guards.
In Dallas’ playoff loss, Williams committed two penalties but also allowed only two pressures on 55 protection snaps, the second-lowest pressure total allowed by a Cowboys lineman in a game where the unit was getting wrecked.
Plus, he earned a 73.6 run-blocking grade and helped the Cowboys rush for 30 yards on six carries (6.0 per carry) into the left-side A or B-gaps. When rushing in any other direction, the Cowboys gained 42 yards on 14 carries (3.0 per carry).
Williams’ upward trajectory is a positive sign for the team that acquires him. They should be able to get the entire bulk of his prime.
Connor Williams makes sense for the Jets
Making the switch from left guard to right guard would be a question mark for Williams if he joined the Jets, but he does have some experience there, so it wouldn’t be completely foreign for him. He made two starts at right guard as a rookie in 2018.
Overall, Williams’ upside outweighs the question marks. The Texas product is a great scheme fit for the Jets and would also provide a huge boost to the unit’s connectivity in pass protection against stunts and blitzes. He’s a former second-round pick who will still be only 25 years old this season and has improved every year thus far.
If I were Joe Douglas and the Jets, I would strongly consider pursuing Williams to be my right guard in 2021. At the very least, bringing in Williams to compete for the role would be a worthwhile upside play, reminiscent of Douglas’ gamble on George Fant in 2020.