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Is NY Jets’ Quincy Williams the NFL’s best linebacker so far?

Quincy Williams, NY Jets, Stats, Rank, LB
Quincy Williams, New York Jets, Getty Images

Do the New York Jets have another defender who can be argued as the best player at his position?

Speaking to the media on October 5, New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich boldly proclaimed he would take Quincy Williams over any other linebacker in the NFL.

“There’s not a better ‘backer in the NFL right now,” Ulbrich said. “He is playing at an elite level.”

That was before the Jets’ Week 5 game against Denver. Since Ulbrich’s comments, Williams has only strengthened his coach’s argument with back-to-back dominant performances against Denver and Philadelphia.

Is Ulbrich correct? Or is this just a case of a coach hyping up his own guy?

Most of the time, it’s the latter. But in this rare instance, there is a strong argument that Ulbrich is simply speaking the truth.

Williams really might be the NFL’s best linebacker so far in 2023.

Quincy Williams’ 2023 production: Is it the best of any NFL linebacker?

Making the case for Williams as the NFL’s LB1 has to start with this simple fact: Williams has been the most active playmaker of any linebacker in football. He has recorded 31 defensive stops, per PFF, which ranks first among linebackers.

Defensive stops are considered “tackles that constitute a failure for the offense.” Obviously, all of these tackles are made short of the line to gain, with varying degrees of yardage required to constitute a stop on each down. Anything short of the sticks is considered a stop on third or fourth down. On first down, a stop is generally considered a gain of less than 40% of the required yardage. On second down, it’s generally considered less than 60% of the required yardage.

So, this stat tells us that Williams has recorded the most tackles that came in key spots. This is a better stat for evaluating linebackers than the traditional total tackles stat, which will credit a player for making the tackle after getting beat in coverage for 30 yards. Williams is seventh in total tackles with 60, but when it comes to making big-time tackles, Williams stands alone at the top.

While Williams’ playmaking volume is the primary feather in his cap, the most vital skill that has placed Williams in the superstar conversation is his vastly improved efficiency.

Williams has always been a flashy playmaker (although not to this extent, which we will get into later). The problem was that his mistakes would cancel out his splash plays. Williams played with a reckless, boom-or-bust style that resulted in either a highlight-reel play or a ghastly whiff.

That has not been the case in 2023. Now, Williams is making a ton of big plays without giving much of anything back.

Williams has been credited with only four missed tackles this season, per PFF. His plus-27 margin between defensive stops and missed tackles is the best among all linebackers:

  1. Quincy Williams, NYJ, +27 (31 stops, 4 missed tackles)
  2. Bobby Wagner, SEA, +24 (25 stops, 1 missed tackle)
  3. T.J. Edwards, PHI, +21 (29 stops, 8 missed tackles)
  4. Patrick Queen, BAL, + 18 (21 stops, 3 missed tackles)
  5. Roquan Smith, BAL, +18 (20 stops, 2 missed tackles)
  6. Foyesade Oluokun, JAX, +18 (24 stops, 6 missed tackles)
  7. C.J. Mosley, NYJ, +17 (19 stops, 2 missed tackles)

For the first time in his career, Williams is finishing plays with above-average consistency. In 2023, Williams’ missed tackle rate is a career-low 6.9%, which ranks 21st-lowest out of 60 qualified linebackers (min. 200 snaps). Last year, his missed tackle rate was 14.0%, more than double his current rate. That ranked 51st out of 60 qualifiers (min. 500 snaps). His career average prior to 2023 was 15.5%.

It’s Williams’ improvement as a tackler that has been the driving force behind his breakout. From the day he entered the NFL, Williams was always capable of getting from Point A to Point B faster than almost anybody else at his position. But since he struggled with play recognition, anticipation, and angles, his speed would often take him out of the play faster than anybody else.

Now that Williams has solidified the mental and fundamental aspects of his game, he is hitting his target at a significantly higher frequency, leading to a massive uptick in big plays and a massive reduction of negative plays.

While Williams always had a fairly lengthy reel of cool highlights over his first two seasons with the Jets, he was never making big plays to quite the extent that he is right now.

Williams actually ranked 11th among linebackers with 3.3 defensive stops per game in 2022, recording 50 in 15 games. As strong as that number is, it’s not even close to where he’s at in 2023.

Thanks to his improved tackling efficiency, plays that were missed tackles in the past are being converted into stops. And because Williams was missing such a high rate of tackles, that’s a lot of extra positive plays being added onto his already-great total – putting Williams on a historic pace when it comes to big-play production.

With 31 stops in six games, Williams is averaging 5.2 stops per game, putting him on pace for an unbelievable 88 stops in 17 games. That would be the most in a single season by a linebacker since PFF started tracking the stat in 2006. His 5.2 stops per game would be the highest by a linebacker (min. 14 games) since Lavonte David averaged 5.4 per game in 2014 with 75 in 14 games.

Even in the past, Williams found himself around the football as often as any other linebacker in the league simply because he is so darn fast. He just wasn’t finishing those plays at a solid rate. But now that he is finishing efficiently, Williams is essentially the perfect linebacker. He blends elite athleticism with elite fundamentals, allowing him to not only find the football more than anyone but still finish plays as consistently as anyone. Thus, a historic pace of defensive stops.

The next piece of Williams’ argument is his elite performance in coverage. Not only is Williams providing the Jets with incredible playmaking as a downhill tackler, but he is shutting teams down in the back end, too.

Williams is tied with Devin Lloyd and Bobby Okereke for the most passes defended among linebackers with five, which already ties his career-high.

On top of that, Williams is clamping down on any throw in his direction. Opposing quarterbacks have generated 220 yards on 44 throws in Williams’ direction. That’s 5.0 yards per target, ranking third-lowest among the 32 linebackers who have faced at least 20 targets this season.

Just like with his tackling ability, Williams always had the potential to be an outstanding cover linebacker thanks to his physical gifts, but he hadn’t put it all together. Over his first two seasons with the Jets, Williams would often take poor angles on screen plays or find himself out of position in zone coverage. This year, he’s ironed out the finer details of his coverage so his physical gifts can shine. Few linebackers in the NFL can make the two plays shown above.

Last but not least, Williams is making a sizable impact as a blitzer. The Jets don’t send him after the quarterback too often, but when he does, he capitalizes at a tremendous rate.

On just 19 pass-rush snaps this season, Williams has recorded six total pressures – two sacks, two hits, and two hurries. His 31.6% pressure rate ranks sixth-best among the 59 linebackers with at least 15 pass-rush snaps.

Williams has been particularly good at converting his opportunities into hits on the quarterback. With a combined total of four sacks-plus-hits on 19 pass-rush snaps, Williams has a sack-plus-hit rate of 21.1%, which ranks third-best.

To wrap it up, here are all of the stats in Williams’ case to be the NFL’s best linebacker this season:

  • Most defensive stops (31)
  • Best margin between defensive stops and missed tackles (+27)
  • Most passes defended (5)
  • 3rd-fewest yards per target allowed, minimum 20 targets faced (5.0)
  • 3rd-best sack-plus-hit rate on blitzes, minimum 15 pass-rush snaps (21.1%)

Not only is Williams the lone linebacker ranked top three in all five of those categories, but there isn’t another linebacker who ranks top three in even just three of those categories. T.J. Edwards is top three in two, as he is second in defensive stops and third in stops-misses margin, but his coverage is far beneath Williams’ level. There simply isn’t another linebacker who comes close to matching Williams’ all-around excellence.

Jeff Ulbrich is right: Quincy Williams has been the best linebacker in the NFL this season.

Ulbrich and the Jets’ coaching staff deserve an immense amount of credit for seeing the potential within Quincy and having the patience to let him develop. They believed in him from the moment he walked in the door at One Jets Drive and have never wavered.

Two years ago (October 7, 2021), Ulbrich said Williams could be one of the best linebackers in the NFL. This was barely over one month after the Jets claimed Williams off waivers from Jacksonville.

Williams had just been waived by the team that drafted him after only his third training camp – despite being a third-round pick. His stock was at an all-time low. To say someone in that situation can be one of the best players at his position is bold, to say the least. You could even call it borderline delusional.

But Ulbrich wasn’t just spewing optimistic hyperbole to pump up his guy. He was telling us what he truly believed. At a time when few people outside of the building had a reason to believe in Quincy, Ulbrich chose to see him not for what he was, but for what he could become. That’s what a great coach does.

Now, here we are. The prophecy has been fulfilled.

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Matt Galemmo
7 months ago

“The prophecy has been fulfilled”

Yep, back in 2021, everyone was calling Ulbrich prophetic.

It was “prophetic,” right? It sounded like something close to that, anyway.