Determining whether Marcus Williams is worth a lucrative investment
New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams is one of the NFL’s most highly-regarded players at his position and will soon become an unrestricted free agent. With the New York Jets possessing one of the weakest safety units in football and plenty of cap space, Williams has generated a lot of attention as a possible high-priority target for New York.
Williams has a fairly high chance of leaving New Orleans due to a horrific cap situation that sees the Saints sitting $42.2 million over the cap (per Spotrac). His strong likelihood of hitting the open market only adds more fuel to the Williams-Jets fire.
Does Williams live up to the hype as a perfect big-money target for New York? Or is he not the slam-dunk option he may seem to be?
Let’s dive into Williams’ complete free-agent profile to figure out whether he makes sense for the Jets.
Williams will likely be an expensive signing for whoever secures his services.
Spotrac estimates that Williams will earn a five-year, $75.2 million deal ($15 million per year). It would be the second-largest contract among safeties in terms of total value (behind only Landon Collins) and the fourth-largest in terms of average annual value.
That seems like an accurate estimation for Williams. Here are some comparable deals that have recently been signed by star safeties in their prime:
- Jamal Adams (age 25): four years, $70M – $17.5M per year
- Justin Simmons (age 27): four years, $61M – $15.3M per year
- Budda Baker (age 24): four years, $59M – $14.8M per year
- Eddie Jackson (age 27): four years, $58.4M – $14.6M per year
Altogether, those four deals average $15.5 million per year, which is right in line with Spotrac’s projection for Williams. The Utah product is 25 years old and will turn 26 in September, so his age lines up with those comparisons, too.
Time to dive into Williams’ game and see if he is worthy of becoming one of the richest safeties in the sport.
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In New Orleans, Williams was one of the league’s purest center-fielders. Few safeties were more strictly tethered to one role than Williams was.
Williams played free safety on 88.9% of his snaps in 2021. That ranked second-highest among qualified safeties behind only Trevon Moehrig of the Raiders. Williams dropped into the box on a mere 8.4% of his snaps.
That style of usage was the norm for Williams throughout his career. Williams never played less than 77% of his snaps at free safety in any of his five seasons with the Saints.
Standing at a slender 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, it seems unlikely that any sort of box role is in Williams’ future unless he bulks up significantly. Williams was the seventh-lightest safety to start at least 10 games in 2021.
Williams is an every-down player who rarely leaves the field. He played 98% of the Saints’ defensive snaps during his 16 appearances in 2021. His lowest single-season snap ratio was 93% in 2018.
Williams’ track record in coverage is fantastic. He offers a tantalizing blend of big-play production and mistake minimization – in other words, he makes a lot of his own highlight plays and rarely gets beat for highlight plays.
Since entering the league in 2017, Williams has a total of 15 interceptions, ranking seventh among safeties over that span:
- Kevin Byard (23)
- Quandre Diggs (19)
- Justin Simmons (19)
- Jordan Poyer (18)
- Tyrann Mathieu (17)
- Harrison Smith (17)
- Marcus Williams (15)
Williams offers reliable consistency in this department as he has picked off at least two passes in all five of his NFL seasons.
Over the same span, Williams also ranks seventh at his position with 38 passes defended:
- Kevin Byard (53)
- Harrison Smith (46)
- Justin Simmons (45)
- Kareem Jackson (43)
- Tyrann Mathieu (42)
- Malcolm Jenkins (39)
- Marcus Williams (38)
Whilst making all of those plays on the ball, Williams does not commit many errors.
Williams has been credited with allowing just nine touchdown receptions in his career (1.8 per season). When coupled up with his 15 interceptions, that gives him a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 0.6-to-1. The 2021 league average for safeties was 1.5-to-1.
This past season, Williams played 672 snaps in coverage (8th-most among safeties) and allowed one touchdown. On average, NFL safeties in the 2021 season gave up a touchdown pass once every 205.8 coverage snaps, so Williams would be expected to give up 3.3 touchdowns over his playing time. Since he only gave up one, Williams saved 2.3 touchdowns versus that expectation (6th-best among safeties).
Williams’ ability to execute his assignment and avoid making mistakes is well-summarized by his low target totals. He was targeted 16 times over 672 coverage snaps in 2021, a rate of once every 42.0 snaps that ranked third-best out of 105 qualifiers at the position.
If a free safety is targeted on a play, he likely made a huge mistake, so the fact that Williams’ target totals are so low tells us that he is rarely caught out of a position when covering the deep part of the field.
That number was no outlier for Williams. His career average for coverage snaps per target is 38.7 and the 2021 positional average was 14.1.
Williams was tagged as responsible for allowing a measly eight catches for 112 yards all season. His average of 0.17 yards allowed per cover snap placed third-best among qualified safeties. That mark is not far off from his career average of 0.25, which would rank top-10 at the position in just about any season (the 2021 league average for safeties was 0.56).
With no holding penalties in his career and only five pass interference penalties (1.0 per season), Williams does a good job of keeping laundry off the field while playing the ball. Williams has nine total penalties in his career (1.8 per season) and just completed a penalty-free 2021 season while playing a career-high 1,037 snaps.
It’s difficult to find a hole in Williams’ coverage resume. He’s as reliable of a defensive back as there is in the league today.
You’re not going to get a boatload of run-stuffs near the line of scrimmage from Williams. That’s natural due to his role. What matters is that he gets the job done in the run game when called upon.
Throughout his five seasons, Williams has finished with an average Pro Football Focus run-defense grade of 78.8 per year. For reference, that would have ranked 14th out of 105 qualified safeties (88th percentile) in 2021.
Williams actually had a career-low run-defense grade of 68.1 this past season, but it still ranked 43rd out of 105 qualifiers (60th percentile).
It’s Williams’ high tackling efficiency in the run game that makes him a good run defender. He may not get to the ball much, but when he does, he stops the bleeding on the spot.
Williams has made 115 tackles against the run in his career while missing just 10. That gives him a missed tackle rate of 8.0% in the run game. For perspective, that would have ranked 26th out of 92 qualified safeties in 2021 (73rd percentile), and the league average at the position was 12.0%.
On average, Williams’ tackles against the run in 2021 occurred 9.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. New Orleans relied on him as the last line of defense in this phase, and he typically answered the call.
So, is Marcus Williams an overhyped Jets target?
I think the answer to that is a resounding no. Williams is the real deal. If you’re looking for a safety who can dramatically slice the number of big plays allowed by your secondary (hint: the Jets are looking for exactly that), there might not be a better option than Williams.
Putting Williams over the top as a star-caliber player is his personal big-play production. Not only is he a steady defensive anchor who does the little things with mind-blowing consistency, but he takes the ball away at a top-10 rate for his position, too.
Throw in Williams’ youth and durability (he’s never missed more than two games in a season), and you have a bona fide big-ticket free agent.
Cost and positional value are, of course, two important factors here. A contract worth $15 million per year is enormous, and this is a safety we’re talking about.
Perhaps the Jets do not feel like they need to spend so much money on a safety. That would be fair, so long as they find another avenue to restock the barren position.
New York’s evaluation of Williams’ talent is another key. Perhaps their assessment is less optimistic than mine. Player evaluation is largely subjective.
With that in mind, it’s possible that the Jets think Williams is good, but not $15 million type of good. We know Joe Douglas is a “line in the sand” type of negotiator. He won’t hesitate to pull out of negotiations if he designates Williams as, say, a $12 million player, and the price tag soars beyond that valuation.
Or, maybe the Jets do not see Williams – who lacks versatility and must remain in a deep safety role – as the type of safety they want. This would also be a fair concern.
Whether or not you think Williams is a part of the Jets’ idealistic offseason plan is a matter of personal preference, but what cannot be debated is that the hype around him is warranted. Williams is a star free safety who deserves the enormous contract he is about to get. He’ll be a game-changer wherever he goes.